When asked what she wished more people knew about hot air ballooning, long time pilot Shannon Rote responded, “When a balloon comes down, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s crashing.” It’s common for people to think that a balloon is crashing because they are landing somewhere that’s not an airport, the basket has tipped over or drug, or because of how low the balloon was flying.
But the hot air balloon didn’t land at an airport!
People often mistakenly think that hot air balloons operate under the same flying principles as other aircraft. Some of the concepts are the same, like log books, the FAA, but a lot of things are different too. For instance, hot air balloons do not take off and then land at specific, designated hot air balloon airport.
Instead, balloons take off from everywhere: a friend’s yard, a pasture, a park, a meadow, a parking lot… anywhere there is an open space big enough for a hot air balloon to spread out. And they land everywhere too: churches, schools, cropless farmers’ fields, cul-de-sacs, and yes, occasionally, an airport. Again, as long as it is big enough that a balloon can touch down and spread out, it has the possibility of being a landing spot.
Often, when reading an article about a “balloon crash,” you’ll notice that the reporters mention that they were ‘forced’ to land there because the wind ‘suddenly changed’ or ‘weather forced an emergency landing’. This is misleading. One, because the wind is always subtly changing and it’s quite common to have a landing site lined up and then the wind slide just a degree to the right or left and blow the balloon away from the landing. It’s just the way things work and does not cause an emergency landing. As for the weather, yes, weather forces us down in a way. On morning flights, once thermals start up, it’s dangerous to keep flying and so pilots land before that. It happens every day and, again, is a fact of ballooning, and not an emergency.
That means these following landings, which have been called by the media and observers as crash or emergency landings, actually aren’t.
The hot air balloon basket tipped over!
Another thing that confuses people about hot air balloons is the way they land. See, hot air balloon baskets are just that… baskets. There are no wheels on the bottom, no shocks, nothing that keeps the basket upright as the pilot lands. Instead, if the wind is moving enough, the basket will touch down on the ground and tip, and possibly even drag. Drag landings are not the preferred method of landing, but they are completely acceptable and do not mean that there is an emergency.
These are all perfectly fine landings.
But the hot air balloon was flying so low!
Flying low, or contour flying, is a common activity for hot air balloon pilots, especially competition or ride pilots. Navigating the balloon to glide right above the tree tops and corn stalks helps them to fine-tune their skills in the case of competition pilots or gives passengers a unique experience that no other form of flying can offer.
Also, when landing, the more shallow a decent rate the more gentle a landing. It’s not uncommon for pilots to slowly ease to the ground, hover for a bit, and then finally touch down. A balloon close to the ground is of no concern; they’re simply out enjoying the beautiful terrian and scenery!
Not all balloon crashes are phony stories made up by news agencies, but it’s not uncommon for stories of normal balloon landings to be exagerated. Most likely, when a hot air balloon flies low over your house, lands on a quiet cul-de-sac street, and the basket tips over, everything is just fine. Come on over! Ask questions. See what ballooning’s all about. That’s why we landed there. 🙂
Have you ever had a balloon land by you? What was it like? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to have more just like it delivered straight to your inbox!