THE MOST CONVINCING PRANK
WHAT FIRE BALLOONS CAN AND CANNOT DO
The prank candle balloon (fire balloon) has been and is a frequent cause of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings. They
have been used by kids to cause UFO sightings. This was especially true in the 1960s, after an article describing their
construction appeared in a science experimentation magazine. They do a good job of scaring the bejeebers out of many people
who see them. The following is a description of the fire balloon, how it behaves, and why it fools so many people:
A fire balloon is a folk toy, dating from the 19th century. It is also called a candle balloon. They have been implicated
in some of the 1897 "airship" sightings. It is possible that this is the first time they were used to make people
see unidentified flying objects. No one would have thought seriously of airships before then.
The fire balloon actually dates to the 14th century, where they were used as prayer balloons. These are called sky lanterns.
In the US, fireworks companies started selling them a few years ago. So you can now buy your own UFO.
There are four types of true fire balloons, plus one hybrid type:
- Type I - The original: This was made of tissue paper, string, and a paper or tin cup of oil or tallow with a cloth
wick. The disadvantage of this design was that it fell in a ball of fire if the tissue paper or paper cup caught fire,
setting fire to whatever it landed on. The usual flying time is 30 minutes to an hour.
- Type II - The newer design: This uses a dry-cleaning bag sealed at the top with Scotch tape. The bottom is held open
with drinking straws or balsa wood, and candles are taped or melted to these. The heat from the candles makes the bag fill
with hot air and fly. These usually fly 10 to 20 minutes.
- Type II A - A commercial design: This is the commercially available Sky Lantern, sold by fireworks stores. They work
the same as the type II, except they use a wax-coated square of cardboard instead of candles. They fly 5 to 10 minutes.
Photos appear below, in flight, and just after launch.
- Type III - The long-life version: Several dry-cleaning or cheap trash bags are split and Scotch-taped together to make
a larger bag. The huge new leaf pickup bags might also work. Church candles are used in these, and they can fly for over
two hours. Good trash bags are too heavy to fly. The thin bags that split apart and spill your garbage on the cat when you
try to pick them up are the ones that fly well.
- Type IV - The bright version: This is constructed like the long-life version, except that small emergency flares are
substituted for the candles. These usually last 15 minutes, half an hour, or an hour, depending on the flares used. The
light is more brilliant and colorful from these.
- Type H - A gas balloon is the lifting device, and flares are used just to make light.
DANGER: DO NOT MAKE OR FLY THESE. They will set fire to a forest, a crop, brush, somebody's house, or a building. They
are illegal in most places. At least three UFOs have been blamed for house fires. Several others caused brush and crop
Here is a list of what fire balloons have been observed to DO:
- They do not look like balloons at night. The bag either is lost to sight, or makes a glow or projection appear above
the object. Often the witness sees the bag as a dome.
They look like a single light, a ring of lights, or a row of lights.
- They are usually red, orange, yellow, or white. They can change from one color to another. Sometimes, when a blue cleaner
bag is used, the lights can look green or blue, or change color. The colors can appear to be quite vivid at night.
- They can rotate about a vertical axis. This makes the lights appear to rotate like a slow Frisbee.
- The usual number of candles is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, or 9. Additional lights can be produced by reflections off the straws
or the bag.
- They can appear to have rectangular windows below the lights, and some form of structure (many times described as a fin
or a dome) can appear above the lights. The balsa wood strips or drinking straws reflect the candlelight and look like
windows. The bag can reflect light, and look like an irregular structure. A halo around the light, and a
"peace sign" shape, have been reported.
- They can maneuver: wobble, flutter, move like a falling leaf, or swing like a pendulum. Changes
in wind speed make the bag tilt, as the heavier bottom lags behind the top (due to inertia). This gives rise to the concepts of
ultra-maneuverability and non-ballistic behavior of UFOs. Since only the bottom of the balloon is visible, it seems to
require a lot of energy to behave as it does. After the change tilts the bag, it rocks back and forth until it settles out.
Note that although they can do this, they do not have to do this.
- They seem much bigger and much farther away than they are. Since most sighters think they are vehicles, they make them
appear in their minds to be at least as big as a car. To make the image seem that big, they see the object as farther away
than it is. Remember that nobody can determine the distance of an unfamiliar object if it is farther away than 30 feet,
unless it overlaps an object of known distance.
- Since they seem farther away, they also seem faster, apparently going at fantastic speeds, and maneuvering tightly enough
to kill human pilots.
- Since they have candles aboard, the lights pulsate as the candles gutter when the wicks get too long. The lights can dim
in quick sequence if a gust of wind hits the mouth of the bag.
- They don't make any sound, unless the prankster installs whistling fireworks, or a firecracker to terminate the
sighting with an explosion. These have been reported.
- They can appear to drop bombs, send scout ships, or fire missiles at the ground. This happens in two ways:
- Dripping candle wax burns as it falls.
- A candle burns itself free of its support and falls while burning.
- They can appear to approach and recede from the witnesses, as the candles burn brighter and dimmer.
- They can appear to move against or cross to the wind, if the upper air wind is blowing in a different direction than
the surface wind.
- They can land and take off. If the wind gusts and the bag tilts enough to lose hot air, the balloon will land until the
hot air builds up again. This can also set a fire if the balloon lands in the wrong place. This can produce burned landing
marks and other "physical evidence."
- They can follow high tension power lines. This happens when the power lines are in a linear clearing cut through trees.
The wind will follow the clearing, pulling the fire balloon along with it. This can happen even if the fire balloon is
somewhat above the trees, because those wind effects also exist somewhat above the tops of the trees.
- They can suddenly appear in the sky. Two methods are known to delay the appearance of the light until the balloon is far
from the launch site. One is to put a black paper cone around the candles. It burns away when the flame reaches the paper.
The other is to use a fuse to start a much brighter flare.
- They can appear to rush away from the witness at high speed as the last candle goes out. If the last candle burns out, it
will appear to rush directly away from the witness. If the last candle falls, it will appear to rush either down, or toward
the distant horizon. Fire balloons can also suddenly ascend rapidly once they have shed enough weight in candle wax.
- Some pranksters hang strips of aluminum foil from the balloons. These appear as appendages, sparkle in reflected light,
and make the balloon appear on RADAR.
- They can give off bursts of brilliant colors, balls of light, or showers of sparks if the prankster puts in lightweight
fireworks. One particularly striking effect occurs when the "signal flare" firework (which gives out extremely
bright flashes of light) is used.
- They can disappear in a ball of flame if the envelope catches fire.
- They can explode noiselessly (or with a delayed bang) in a shower of sparks if the prankster puts a small firecracker
- Fire balloons are low power devices, and generally fly low. They often follow wind patterns as trees deflect the air
currents. In some cases, they follow power lines because of the swath cut in the trees for the power lines to run through.
- Fireworks companies are now selling Type II A fire balloons. An example is the
Surenkamp Fireworks "Hand Crafted Authentic Chinese Sky Lanterns" stock number PFN0110. So expect plenty of
These are NOT examples of fire balloons:
- Anything that goes behind a normally high cloud and reappears.
- Anything bright seen during the day. (Note that type 1 can be seen in daylight as a dark object, but other fire balloons
usually are not flown during the day.)
- Anything moving against known low and medium altitude winds.
- Anything crossing the open sky in less than two seconds.
- Anything crossing the open sky back and forth several times.
- Anything tracked on RADAR at high speeds (but a visual fire balloon sighting may be erroneously linked with a
high-speed RADAR anomaly).
- Anything higher than 20000 ft.
- Anything seen over the ocean out of sight from land is probably not a fire balloon (due to the lack of a launching
These are examples of witness statements describing fire balloons:
- "It was 80 to 90 feet across." (It was actually about 1.5 ft across.)
- "Blimps with fire at one end." (Good description)
- "It was like looking into the middle of hell."
- "There was an area of stronger density above it."
- "A slow moving ball of fire."
- "An inverted bowl."
- "Lights whirling around the rim."
- "Reddish white, the apparent size of a car."
- "Blue lights, the color of a welding torch, in a band around the center."
- "It vanished in the distance."
- "A snake-like thing fell from the bottom." (Candle fell)
- "It moved haphazardly."
- "One quarter to one half the size of the full moon."
- "Firing rockets at the ground." (flares burned free and fell)
- "It swung like a pendulum."
- "It shot away when I turned the spotlight on it."
- "It zipped along at fantastic speed."
- "It moved like a falling leaf."
- "The lights appeared to be on the rim of a rapidly rotating disk."
- "Several observers reported the smell of perfume in the air." (Scented candles?)
- "It looked like a two story house, with flying golden rooms and partitions."
- "It moved like a leaf fluttering from a tree."
- "It was rocking back and forth on its axis, still absolutely silent."
- "Several silverish things were hanging down from it."
- "Square windows around the bottom."
- "When I shined my light at it, it swung like a pendulum, apparently in recognition."
- "Where does it go in the daytime?"
- "At times the light seemed to change. Pulsate."
- "It wasn't real bright, but it was fuzzy."
- "The center of it looked like a hippie peace sign."
- "Now I describe it as being beautiful."
- "Suddenly it shot straight up, disappearing in a couple of seconds."
- "It rippled like looking through water."
- "There were lights on the bottom going around it like pinwheels. Red ones."
- "They looked like merry-go-rounds, all lit up and turning."
- "Then I had an idea. I cast my fishline, caught it, and reeled it in. Here it is."
The number of cases proven to be caused by fire balloons is amazingly large. Every time a major flap happens, at least one
fire balloon is found by police.
As you can see, many of the antics of UFOs seen from the ground can be explained by fire balloons. By no means can they
explain all sightings, but a large number of moving lights at night, or rings of lights, have been shown to be these devices.
The type H fire balloon is a similar, but brighter device. It consists of one to four highway flares attached to a
helium-filled government-surplus weather balloon. These generally fly higher, and are seen over a wider area.