Up Close with the Gentle Giants
What it Takes to Launch a Safe Balloon Event
By Adam Magee, 2021 National FAASTeam Representative of the Year
Ask most people when the aviation age began, and you’re likely to hear about the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903. However, human flight actually started 120 years earlier, in 1783 to be exact, when two Frenchmen traveled five miles in a hot air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers. Back then, Ben Franklin was present to witness the first flight and wrote in his journal about the majestic manner in which the balloon took flight.
Today, balloons remain iconic in the eyes of the public. For many, balloon events provide the first incentive to obtain lighter-than-air pilot certification. Every year, hundreds of balloon events occur across the United States, ranging in size from less than a dozen balloons to more than 650 at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF), the largest balloon event in the world. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to keep pilots, crews, and spectators safe at balloon events.
Just as preflight prep is important to pilots, pre-event prep is vital to safety at a balloon event. Like other aviation events, such as air races or shows, balloon events fall under the National Aviation Events Program maintained by the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division. In coordination with the FAA’s local Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs), balloon event sponsors can apply for a Certificate of Waiver (CoW) for an aviation event.
A CoW allows for certain 14 CFR part 91 regulations to be waived. With a waiver for 14 CFR section 91.119 (b) and (c), minimum safe altitude, balloon pilots can benefit from more favorable winds and a greater level of freedom in flight to maneuver safely. From the FAA’s perspective, the CoW provides risk management, coordination, and surveillance. Balloon events flying under a CoW allow the local FSDO a better opportunity to conduct surveillance and safety outreach within the community.
“Weather” or Not to Fly
Safety at a balloon event begins well before a balloon is ever unpacked. Not only do pilots complete their own pre-flight weather checks, but they also attend event-hosted pilot briefings. Since weather conditions are critical to a safe launch, balloon events often have their own meteorologist who gathers data from the National Weather Service and on-field weather stations. The meteorologist reviews the weather data, which is then communicated to all pilots by the event weather officer, balloonmeister, or event director at the flight briefing. Based on the weather information, the balloonmeister, with input from the weather officer and safety officer, makes the launch decision.
As a general rule, winds faster than 10 knots, visibility less than three miles, clouds below 1,500 feet, or rain will postpone or cancel any scheduled balloon launches. On morning flights, with such a short window of time before the sun’s heat can diminish “ideal” flying conditions, many pilots find themselves in a race against time to get airborne, especially during competition events when the distinct wind layers will merge. “Hurry up and wait” is a common phrase said by pilots and crews.
There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to keep pilots, crews, and spectators safe at balloon events
It’s important to remember to use checklists and not fall victim to impulsivity during these time-critical periods. Completing checklist items and not hurrying inspections is crucial to safety. It’s also important for a balloon pilot to be proficient and not simply current. Pilots who haven’t accrued much flying time between events may be rusty with procedures, increasing the risk of the flight in hurried conditions.
All balloon events, from large to small, require some degree of coordination with other aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS). Through the CoW process, the FAA coordinates with Air Traffic Control to ensure NAS safety. This might involve communicating across different FAA lines of business and/or issuing TFRs and NOTAMs.
At balloon events, operational responsibility is delegated to the Balloonmeister. The Balloonmeister, together with a team of safety professionals, including a weather officer and safety officer, coordinates all balloon activities. Balloon events flying within or nearby controlled airspace require coordination with appropriate personnel. Communication or equipment requirements are often waived in these cases, and safety mitigation procedures are put in place through the CoW. This ensures safety, but in the case of the AIBF, where 650 balloons might be inside Class C airspace, it also provides for the efficiency of resources. That would be a lot of talk on the radio and many dots on the screen!
For balloon pilots, these events can create rare opportunities to experience flight in areas you would otherwise only dream about. For example, balloon pilots participating in the Great Forest Park Balloon Race in September have the opportunity to launch from the heart of downtown St. Louis inside the Class B airspace. Numerous regulations are waived, including communication and equipment requirements within the Class B and minimum safe altitudes. This rare opportunity is only made possible through a CoW. If you’re lucky, and the winds are just right, you can float across downtown St. Louis toward the Gateway Arch, as I was able to do a few years ago!
At some events, such as EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., or Battle Creek Field of Flight in Battle Creek, Mich., balloon operations occur around other airshow events. Given the narrow time frame for suitable balloon flights (usually two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset), balloons often take precedence during these times, and no other aircraft are in flight over the site grounds. There is a balloon glow at some events, where balloons are inflated and light up the night sky. Balloon glows can uniquely complement a night air show taking place in the background. However, event coordinators must ensure the balloons are properly distanced from the performers to avoid unwanted wake turbulence.
Safety at a balloon event begins well before a balloon is ever unpacked.
Balloons rarely take off and land at airports. More often than not, balloons are taking off and landing at parks, schools, or private property. For FAA aviation safety inspectors, this presents a unique challenge in conducting surveillance and safety outreach of balloon operators during daily operations. Very few FSDO offices have inspectors who are rated in balloons. The opportunity for these inspectors to see the aircraft and interact with the pilots builds knowledge and trust, which improves communication and safety.
As fickle as flying a balloon seems with the strict weather requirements, it’s the wind that provides a balloon pilot’s only form of steerage. In the northern hemisphere, the winds shift to the right with altitude due to the Coriolis Effect. So to steer a balloon, the pilot would ascend to turn right and descend to turn back left. Local microclimates provide various wind phenomena, which makes flying a balloon fun.
In Albuquerque, the Sandia mountains contribute to a “box” wind which allows the balloons to take off heading south with the drainage winds and then climb to an altitude where the winds take them back to the north. When the pilot descends again, they can take advantage of the south drainage winds to box back over their launch spot and even land in the same spot they launched. That’s quite a rare occasion for balloonists.
“X” Marks the Spot
Easily the most exhilarating aspect of a balloon event is the competition element. In a balloon competition, a pilot’s flying precision is tested. A large fabric X is placed in a field, and the pilot must navigate the winds to fly as close as possible to the X and drop a marker. The marker closest to the center of the X wins.
Routine balloon ascensions can usually be conducted in accordance with the provisions of part 91, and no waiver is required. However, balloon competitions will likely require a CoW with appropriate special provisions to maintain the safety of the non-participating public.
Balloon competitions often involve operations at horizontal and vertical distances less than those required by 14 CFR sections 91.119 (b) and (c). Operations at these altitudes are necessary to take advantage of varying wind conditions present at different altitudes. Winds are the balloonist’s only means of directional control. These operations are acceptable when appropriate limitations are developed to ensure public safety and the safety of the participants.
If you have the opportunity to attend balloon events focused heavily on competition, such as the National Balloon Classic in Indianola, Iowa, the Flag City Balloonfest in Findlay, Ohio, or the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview, Texas, you’ll find many of the same pilots accumulating points to attend the U.S. National Championship events. From there, pilots qualify for international competition and the world championships held every two years.
Depending on the various risk assessments, some balloon events require spectators to remain behind a barrier while the balloons are setting up and launching. Other events, like the AIBF, allow for spectators to be with the action. This provides an opportunity for the public to get up close to the gentle giants. With every balloon pilot, there are equally dedicated crewmembers that help prepare for launch and follow the balloon in a support vehicle to then help pack it away upon landing. This team keeps spectators safe.
At larger balloon events, you’ll find launch directors, or “zebras,” coordinating the launch activities to allow for safe operations. You can’t miss the zebras, wearing black and white striped shirts, and sometimes pants and hats too. No balloon can launch without getting a “thumbs up” from a zebra. Zebras also perform crowd control and convey any concerns about airworthiness or airmanship to the proper authorities.
If you’re interested in getting involved with balloon flight, joining the chase crew is a great opportunity to build some sweat equity to earn a free flight. Be warned; it’s often said that the first ride is the most expensive, as you will want to buy a balloon afterward.
Adam Magee is a commercial hot air balloon pilot/flight instructor, designated pilot examiner, and FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Representative. He was named the 2021 National FAASTeam Representative of the Year. He is co-founder/president of The Balloon Training Academy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and industry member of the FAASTeam.