Fly the Wind

Force and motion are major middle school science topics. Balanced and unbalanced forces and force as a vector are important force and motion concepts. The middle school science team wants to alert you to an online Hot Air Balloon Simulator (free) that exercises these and other science concepts.

But first, let me remind you that a computer simulation is not a game.

A computer simulation:

• mathematically models a real world activity, event, or process.

• requires the application of knowledge about that activity, event, or process to be successful.

• provides immediate performance evaluation.

Here’s a screenshot of the balloon simulator page identifying everything seen on the page.

Balloon Sim Pic

Your challenge as a hot air balloon pilot is to take off from a spot between two small red flags, fly to a position over a small yellow flag planted on the ground, drop a marker (Task 1), and fly back to the takeoff point (Task 2). The red arrow shows the direction of the small yellow flag. You are scored according to how close to the yellow flag your marker hits the ground and how close to the starting point you land the balloon.

As pilot, you operate a propane burner that adds heat to the envelope of the balloon. A flap at the top of the balloon (called a parachute) can be opened to release heat from the envelope. Adding heat to the envelope increases the force of lift, releasing heat decreases lift.  Operate the burner by clicking on the basket and the parachute by clicking on the top of the balloon.

Burn and Cool

A balloon pilot can control only the vertical forces acting on the balloon. Wind creates a horizontal force on the balloon and pushes the balloon in the direction of the wind. Air resistance opposes this force until the balloon reaches the velocity of the wind.

Before flight, it is vital that you click on the yellow Test balloon button. Doing so releases a small, white balloon called a pibal (short for pilot observation balloon). The pibal shows wind direction and speed (a vector) at its altitude. Wind speed and direction typically changes with altitude.

A hot air balloon takes time to respond to pilot inputs. Control inputs to an airplane are almost instantaneous but not so with a hot air balloon!

Every balloon pilot has a call sign used to identify the balloon when using the air-to-air and ground-to-air radios. Create your own call sign, enter an email address, and you are ready to fly. (Note: I have been flying a balloon on this site for over a year and have never been spammed.)

There is a leaderboard that lists the top scores. The top score is zero feet. My best score, so far, is 1,715 feet.

Here’s the link.

Challenge yourself and your students to fly the balloon. The forces acting on the balloon are easily understood. Controlling those forces, especially as a beginner, is a separate learning task.

The following statement appears in the About Us link.

“The whole site is intended for hot air balloon pilots, but anyone else is more than welcomed to experience the physics of the first flying machine man have ever made.”

Jim Wilson

Jim entered the teaching profession as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1965. He taught algebra and chemistry at the Aga Khan Senior Secondary School in Masaka, Uganda until his return to the United States in 1968. From 1968 until 1972 he taught middle school math and science in Tulare, California and then he and his young family moved to Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia where he taught mathematics at Keira Boys High School. From 1974 to 1994 Jim served as the Math, Science, and Computer coordinator for the Tulare City Schools district in Tulare, California. During this period he became a member of the original AIMS writing team and in 1994 took an early retirement from public education to join the AIMS team fulltime. Jim’s focus at AIMS is the Middle School Science project. Jim is also an adjunct faculty member at Fresno Pacific University enjoying teaching contemporary math courses.

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One Response to Fly the Wind

  1. I tried the simulation and while learned more about force and motion, I also learned that I don’t have a future as a balloon pilot.

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