Are you thinking of purchasing a used balloon? Several questions come to mind. What are you going to use the balloon for? Are you planning to use the balloon for recreation, races, the commercial ride business or a combination of things. What size of balloon do you need? You certainly do not need a 100,000+ cubic foot balloon to take yourself and a couple of passengers up for a morning ride. On the other hand, you don't want a 65,000 cubic foot if you plan to have a ride business. What size of balloon do you need for rallies? There are several steps to take once you have determined the size of balloon you need. When you think you have found the balloon you want you should:
1. Request an annual.
The purchase of a used balloon should be, in part, contingent upon passing an annual. However, passing an annual does not mean you are purchasing A "good" balloon system that needs little or no repair. The manufacturers' standards are minimal. In general, if the envelope passes the pull strength test and there are no leaks in your fuel fitting or lines, the pyrometer works and the basket, burner and tanks are in decent condition, the system will pass the annual.
Don't let the owner talk you out of having an annual because he has only flown the balloon a couple of times or because it has sat idle since the previous year's annual. Envelope fabric can deteriorate for any numbers of reasons. Was the envelope kept dry? Was the envelope stored in an area with proper ventilation? In general, balloons flown regularly have fewer porosity problems.
2. Be present during the annual.
Tell the repair station you are considering purchasing a used balloon system and would like to help with the annual. Request that you be present for each part of the annual. This may take some additional time, but will allow you to see the entire system up close and personal. (Some repair stations will actually give you a discount if you and a few of your crew members physically help with the annual.)
3. Check the fabric thoroughly.
Does the fabric feel tacky? Can you see light through pin pricks in the fabric? Does the fabric stink? Can you see mildew spots on the fabric?
Ask for a porosity test. Porosity can be defined as the measure of the volume of air that is allowed to pass through the fabric and coating when a pressure differential is applied. Envelopes are coated to lower the porosity. When the coating is damaged to the point that it's properties change, the fabric becomes more porous. To my knowledge, there is only one manufacturer that requires a porosity test as part of the annual. The manufacturer suggests the replacement of panels where the average porosity reading is 70 psi or above. However, no manufacturer requires porous panels to be replaced. The repair station should check for porosity in several places from the top to the bottom of the envelope. Think twice about purchasing a balloon that has several panels in the 60+ psi range. There is no way to tell how quickly these panels will continue to deteriorate.
4. The pull test. (psi - pounds per square inch)
Balloon manufacturers have various standards for the fabric pull strength test. This test makes any balloon owner cringe, but when there is no tear in the material, the owner knows that at least strength-wise the fabric is in good shape. Some manufacturers require a 40 pound pull test while others require 30 pound pull tests on a specific part of the envelope and 20 pounds elsewhere. If the pull strength of the balloon is required to be 30 pounds and it fails at 34 pounds, you will soon have a big repair bill to pay for. It's better to pay the current balloon owner for a small repair instead of paying to replace several panels in the near future.
A porous envelope does not react as fast as a balloon system with a good envelope. Can you gain elevation quickly enough to miss a house, a barn, a tree or powerline?
5. Check the bottom end (basket, instruments, burner, tanks, etc.)
Check for wear and tear on the skids. A lot of wear could mean there were a lot of hard landings. Hard landings are hard on instruments. What kind of shape is the burner in? Has it been kept clean? Have the o-rings been changed (not all burners have o-rings). Inflate the balloon to see if the burner and fuel system are in good working order. Have another pilot fly the balloon for you and give you his/her opinion. Check the tanks for dings and dimples. Are the tanks due for a visual inspection next year? Check the condition of the fuel hoses. Does the wicker have a lot of dings or holes in it? Does any of the wicker need to be replaced? What kind of condition is the leather or suede on the basket in?
6. Replacement dates.
Depending upon the manufacturer, various parts of the balloon system are required to be replaced periodically. An example of this would be fuel hoses. Some manufacturers require fuel hoses be to replaced every ten years. Make sure that the balloon you are about to purchase does not need several items replaced the following year. If something does need to be replaced immediately, ask the owner to decrease the price of the balloon. Replacement items are very expensive.
7. Check the logbook entries.
Look for irregularities in the entries or gaps. Were all repairs legal? Is the balloon in compliance with all Airworthiness Directives (ADs)? Is there any evidence of the envelope being overtemped? Talk to the last person to annual the balloon.
I hope the above information will help you make your decision on whether or not to buy a used balloon. All used balloon systems are not lemons. You just need to know what to look for ahead of time. Just remember, a balloon system with an extremely porous envelope may need repairs in the range of $3500 and up. In the long run, it may be less expensive to finance part or all of a new system.
Part of the information was borrowed from an article by Mark West. I received other pieces of information from several balloonists who responded to my e-mail inquiry as well as repair station owners. Thank you all.