How Safe is Hot Air Ballooning?
Hot air ballooning is one of the most exciting forms of recreational flying. Being suspended high in the sky in a basket with the roar of the burners will definitely give you an adrenaline rush. However, the contraption of the hot air balloon makes one wonder whether this form of flying is safe, specially since there are occasional reports of accidents during hot air balloon flights.
However, if you delve closely into these accidents, you will realise a majority occurs due to adverse weather conditions when it is not recommended to go hot air ballooning or due to errors by the pilot. At the end of the day when there is an incident it is usually attributed to pilot error and lack of experience. That is why flying with an experienced operator is so important.
Hot Air Balloon Licencing
Hot air ballooning is definitely one of the safest modes of flying. While you will hear about accidents, it may come as a surprise to learn that serious accidents are very rare.
It goes without saying that safety during hot air balloon flying depends on the experience of the pilot. Thankfully, in several countries where hot air ballooning is popular, there are mechanisms and checks in place to manage balloon pilots.
In the US the FAA strictly control the operations of Hot Air Balloons and the conduct of Pilots, Crew and Passengers. Hot Air Balloons are registered aircraft and must abide by the same rules about flight, maintenance and safety standards just like a 747 passenger plane.
In Australia, the Australian Ballooning Federation governs private balloon pilots. Pilots should have Air Operators Certificate, which is issued by the Australian Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA), for commercial operations that involve charging fare to passengers. It is also mandatory that hot air balloons be registered with CASA and undergo regular checks for airworthiness by authorised professionals.
Every country has a governing body that ensures the safety of Balloon passengers.
Safety Measures On Board the Balloon
When you go hot air ballooning, you may be surprised to find many pieces of safety equipment in the basket. This should give you assurance and reinforce the fact that hot air ballooning is safe and operators take measures to ensure yours and the pilot’s safety.
Usually, the pilot will have access to backup ignition, like a flint spark lighter, should the pilot light go off and the ignition fail. Also, many hot air balloons have dual fuel and burner systems. This means it will have two fuel tanks that are connected to two individual hoses, which separately feed two burners. This system is in place to ensure safe landing if one system fails.
The hot air balloon will also have a fire extinguisher should the fuel (propane) catch fire. Usually, you will find 1 to 2 kg AB:E kind of fire extinguisher on board. In addition, you will find a rescue knife, first aid kit and a fire blanket in the hot air balloon.
Like fixed wing aircraft Balloons must carry a large amount of excess fuel in case of an extended flight.
Maintenance and Repair of Balloons
To minimise chances of accidents, hot air balloon companies undertake regular maintenance and repair work in accordance with the local laws and regulations.
The envelope fabric is tougher than it appears. However, the fabric can develop tears, which have to be fixed by a qualified repair technician. This maintenance will be noted down in the maintenance log book and you can always ask to see the log book if you are worried about your safety during hot air ballooning.
The envelope is also regularly cleaned and dried and checked for strength. Usually, this is done by qualified, government appointed, person who has the authority to undertake safety checks and repairs. It prevents formation of mould and mildew on the fabric and preventing abrasions while packing, unpacking and transportation.
The burner and fuel system are also regularly cleaned to ensure safe flights, and leaky valves and damage fuel hoses replaced as necessary. Even the wicker basket is subject to occasional repair and refinishing to maintain its integrity.
Besides the regular maintenance work that is carried out regularly by technicians hired by the hot air balloon company, there is also a fixed maintenance schedule wherein after every 100 hours of flight, the entire hot air balloon is inspected by trained and qualified inspectors. This ensures the balloons are airworthiness and minimising chances of accidents.
Most common cause of Balloon accidents?
As mentioned above the more experienced your pilot and team are the less likelihood of any incident occurring. The problem with the perception of balloons and safety is that as balloons are the one of the safest form of aviation when there is an accident it is usually fairly dramatic.
The main cause, and the biggest thing to be aware of during a flight, are power lines. Hot Air balloons and power lines do not mix. In many cases power lines are hard to see and are in a position that makes it hazardous during launch and landing.
A good balloon company will brief their passenger before a flight and during a flight. They should always mention that whilst the pilot knows the area he is always scanning the grounds, when the balloon is low, for power lines. You should never, ever feel awkward mentioning to a pilot that you see a power line that they might have missed. A good pilot will actually ask you to point this out during their briefing.
The Bottom Line
Each morning, when the weather is right, thousands of balloons fly across the US skies – elsewhere in the world likewise the sky is filled with balloons. Most people do not realise this as they are still in bed. Ballooning accidents are exceeding rare but as ballooning is a such a high profile event (everyone videos and photographs the flights) if something does happen it is front page news.
As stated earlier, hot air ballooning is safe and you have no reason to worry when you have a licensed and experienced pilot at the helm, allowing you to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the world below you.
Check out our list of Balloonist’s Essential Equipment here.