It’s a beautiful day for a hot air balloon festival, but suddenly, the announcer comes over the loudspeaker and says that the balloons, unfortunately, will not be flying. The safety officer issued a no-go. But why?
The most common reasons no-goes are issued is wind or storms; however, there is also fog, ground condition, and TFR’s. I have explained all of them below.
1. Dangerous wind speed
Sometimes, the festival flights will be canceled because the ground wind is too fast. But what is too fast for a hot air balloon?
Typically, the top speed pilots will fly in is 6 to 8 mph. Only very experienced pilots fly past that and even they say no when it gets to 12 mph. So while it might not feel that windy to you, it might still be dangerous for balloons.
2. Dangerous winds at higher altitudes
Another thing that confuses people is when the wind seems perfectly calm but they still issue a no-go because of high winds. Although the ground wind is acceptable, there can still be dangerous winds at higher altitudes. At one festival we went to, it was calm on the ground, but when we let up a pi-ball (a small helium party balloon to give us a visual representation of what the wind is doing), it reached treetop level and then shot off into a 25 mph wind sheer. That’s much too dangerous for a balloon to launch into and then try to land with, especially since winds generally come closer to the ground as the day goes on.
3. Not enough wind
Yes, hot air balloons are very finicky. They can’t have too much wind, but they can’t have too little either. If the wind speed at altitude is 2 mph or below, it can get iffy for flying. In the evening when winds slow down or weather patterns change, if it’s already slow a pilot could get stranded over woods, planted farm fields, a pond, high tension lines, or a building.
4. Winds headed in a dangerous direction
Since balloons travel with the wind, pilots have to be sure that not only is the wind traveling at a safe speed but that it is also going in a safe direction. It would not be good for the balloons to be headed towards a city where there are no landing spots, or over a lake or other area they can’t land.
5. A storm front is coming
Storms don’t have to be close in order to negatively affect hot air balloons. In fact, most festivals will issue a no-go if a storm is within 50 miles. The reason is that a storm produces a massive gust front that proceeds it. These surprising winds can put the hot air balloons at risk. The worst part is there’s very little warning as to when a gust will hit or if one even will hit. One moment it’s calm, the next it’s gusting. Because of the unpredictability of them, pilots tend to the safe side.
6. Ground Conditions
Another thing that comes up is the ground condition. Sometimes, if it just rained, the ground is wet and soft. Balloon baskets bumping and scraping against the grass can rip up the soft turf. This understandably upsets landowners which does not help the sport any.
The fun thing about fog is that it doesn’t show up everywhere. For instance, it might be clear on the field where we are taking off, but the area that we are flying towards has fog, or perhaps, the field has fog and we can’t see to take off, or conditions are perfect for fog to form while the balloons are up.
Fog is especially dangerous because, well, the pilot can’t see. They could be taking off into a tree, they could hit a cell tower, they could run into high tension lines or any number of other obstacles. Because of that, pilots and festivals are very cautious when it comes to fog.
8. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs)
Sometimes Air Force One comes through and no aircraft can be flying in the same vicinity, including hot air balloons. This usually happens around election season, when the president is flying around. The only way to keep the festival going is if the balloon meister (person in charge of the ballooning aspect) can convince the Secret Service not to ground the balloons.
Balloonists go to festivals to fly and they are just as disappointed as you when they can’t. However, safety is of the utmost importance. The safety officer, who is a distinguished and experienced pilot, has to make sure that there are no dangerous flight conditions.
So these are eight common reasons why hot air balloons don’t fly. Next time you are at a festival and a no-go is issued, you know the reason why. We’re just as sorry as you that we couldn’t fly, but we appreciate you coming and hopefully, the weather will favor us better next time.
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