After talking about what weren’t balloon crashes in one of my last posts, I thought it would be a good idea to go more in-depth on ways that hot air balloons are safe. In fact, flying is one of the safest methods of travels and hot air ballooning is one of the safest methods of flying.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees hot air balloons. This means that they regulate the rules, make sure that each balloon manufacturer has quality standards and that the balloons are constructed up to that quality. They set up the standards for licensing and for maintaining currency. They also work with festivals to make sure that every pilot that comes in is legal and safe, and that the festival itself is safe for the pilots to fly at.
All pilots have to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before they can fly. This entails a lot of work. They must take a written test, an oral test, and a flight test.
For the written test, they need to learn how the weather works, how to chart a flight path, how to read aviation maps, how to talk to airports, the rules of flying and ballooning. In the oral test, the examiner quizzes the student even more on everything from what the balloon basket is made of to how to inform passengers of upcoming landings and safety procedures to macro- and micro-weather to reading maps. That’s only a snippet of the hour-long test.
For the flight test, the examiner and student pilot will take the balloon on a flight. The examiner observes as the student pilots checks the weather, finds a launching spot, and then pilots the balloon. While they are flying, the examiner and student pilot also talk, continuing the oral exam as the examiner checking to make sure the student pilot is comfortable in their balloon, knows what everything is, and knows the procedures.
Before they can even take the test, student pilots need 10 hours with an instructor, a solo flight, a flight over 2,000 feet high, and to be signed off by his instructor as ready for the test. The minimum age is 16.
After pilots have their license, they have to stay current in order to be able to fly with passengers. To stay current, they have to have flown and landed three times within the past ninety days. If they haven’t, they are still a licensed pilot, but they are not able to take passengers. However, as soon as they get those landings in, anyone can go up with them.
Biennial Flight Review
Every other year, the pilots are required to have a flight review. This review is composed of two parts: one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction. If at any point, the instructor feels that knowledge or skill is lacking, they will assign additional instruction until the pilot gets that area back to where it should be. It’s a way to make sure that lesser used, but still important, skills are remembered and that all pilots are at the top of their game.
There are annual hot air balloon safety seminars held across the United States that pilots and crew attend. Generally, the seminars go over six or more topics, ranging from weather to flying skills to maintance to accident analysis to rules and regulations to crew safety. This brings the pilots and crew together to continue improving their skills and learning from each other to make the sport as safe as it can be.
The pilot isn’t the only one built for safety. The hot air balloons are also built and regularly maintained to make them as safe as possible.
Build of a Balloon
A hot air balloon is built for safety. The fabric making up the envelope is rip-stop nylon, which prevents tears from growing too big. The lower third of the balloon is often Nomex, a fire resistant material so that it doesn’t melt during inflation.
The baskets are made out of wicker, a flexible, lightweight, but strong bamboo-like wood. This wood not only looks really cool to weave a basket out of, but is flexible so it acts as a shock absorber as well. The wicker is woven around a rigid, tubular framework that then attaches to stainless steel cables. These cables are what connect to the envelope.
Once a year, a hot air balloon has to be annualled, unless it’s a commericial balloon. If it’s a commercial balloon, it has to be annualled every 100 flight hours or one year. An annual is a thorough check to make sure that everything is still airworthy. All of them are completed at FAA certified repair stations. Several things are checked. Every inch of the balloon envelope is inspected for little holes or rips. The burners are taken apart to make sure all of the seals are intact. The propane tanks are checked for leaks. The basket is checked to make sure that it’s strong and that none of the wicker has been weakened by use.
Yes. Hot air balloons are very safe. The pilots, manufactures, and FAA work together to make sure that the sport is as safe as it can be. So, no more hesitation. It’s time to come on out and play with a balloon! Now that you know it’s safe, book a flight, find someone to crew for, and come on out for some fun!