How Dangerous Are Hot Air Balloon Rides (Low Risk)

There are many misconceptions about hot air ballooning, and that is why it can be scary to some people. This blog post will debunk the myths about ballooning and walk through how safe and not-scary hot air balloons really are! We’ll also go over what you should know before flying in a hot air balloon.

Two balloons with one blocking the sun, causing an eclipse
Two balloons with one blocking the sun, causing an eclipse

Ballooning Is Very Low Risk From The FAA’s Perspective

According to the Aviation Accident Database put out by the FAA, hot air ballooning is the safest form of all air travel and are rarely involved in aviation crashes. In fact, when hot air balloons are compared to other forms of transportation, hot air ballooning is even safer. The main reason they are so safe, is that hot air balloons only fly in good weather and slow wind conditions. Flying in good weather really helps to prevent aviation accidents. So, if you are considering taking a hot air balloon ride, you can be assured that it is one of the safest ways to enjoy the beauty of the sky.

When compared to other forms of transportation, hot air ballooning is even safer. In fact, you are more likely to be injured while driving a car than you are while flying in a hot air balloon. This is because hot air balloons only fly in good weather and slow wind, which helps to prevent accidents.

Hot air balloons are federally registered flying aircraft and pilots are required to hold a lighter than air pilots license from the FAA.

What Kind Of Weather Do Hot Air Balloons Fly In?

Hot air balloons are very different from other types of aircraft. Hot air balloon pilots don’t use a steering wheel and instead use the winds at various altitudes to control the balloon’s direction. Commercial hot air balloons typically fly within 2 hours of sunrise or 2 hours of sunset. During that time period, the winds are the calmest and most consistent due to the lack of temperature change.

Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, hot air balloons do not fly in marginal or adverse weather conditions like thunderstorms, windy conditions, wind gusts, rain, or snow. Since hot air balloons are at the mercy of the wind, balloon pilots are experts at understanding the wind and local weather conditions. The majority of all aviation accidents are coupled with some type of inclement weather or bad weather conditions. In conclusion, since balloon pilots only fly in good weather conditions, there are rarely balloon accidents. Makes sense huh right?

weather interpretation
Weather Interpretation

Pilots, especially those navigating balloons, rely heavily on accurate weather forecasts to ensure safe and efficient flights. Forecasting weather is a critical skill for experienced pilots, as they must have a comprehensive understanding of both the speed of the surface winds and the upper-level wind forecasts. Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, balloons are more susceptible to the whims of the atmosphere, making a deep knowledge of meteorological conditions essential. Balloon pilots analyze weather forecasts to anticipate changes in wind directions and speeds at different altitudes. This analysis includes understanding the speed of the surface winds, which greatly influences takeoff and landing, and upper-level wind forecasts, which dictate the balloon’s trajectory and flight path. Mastery of interpreting these weather elements is crucial for a balloon pilot to navigate safely and efficiently through the skies. Passengers often wonder if it is easier for balloons to fly in hot or cold weather. Considering balloons heat the air inside the balloon to be warmer than the ambient air outside the balloon to create lift, we find hot air balloons use the least amount of fuel in 30-60 degree weather.

Do Hot Air Balloons Get Caught In Fast Wind? Yes.

One thing to know about hot air balloons is that they do not have landing gear like fixed wing aircraft. There are three types of landings in a hot air balloon. A stand-up landing, a fast wind (tip-over landing), and an emergency landing. 99.9% of all hot air balloon landings are stand-up or tip-over landings. Both are safe and a normal part of ballooning. Emergency landings only occur if powerline contact is imminent, there is a weather anomaly or a mechanical equipment failure. We’ll chat later about why hot air balloons rarely have mechanical failures or get caught in funky weather.

Balloons can safely land in fast wind (it’s memorable and actually pretty fun!). However, it is crucial that as a passenger, you listen to the safety briefing and all pilot instructions before the landing sequence in the case that there is a fast wind landing.

Standard tip over landings occur when the wind speed on the surface is 10kts-20Kts (10-20 Miles Per Hour). High wind landings would be winds greater than 18Kt. These high wind lands are usually from unpredictable outflow winds that occur from thunderstorms hundreds of miles away or weather anomalies. Hot air balloon pilots are trained to discover possible outflow, and the crew on the ground is trained to watch weather stations around the area to alert the pilots of any significant changes.

Following Hot Air Balloon Pilot And Crew Instructions

Whenever you fly on any type of aircraft it is important to follow all safety and crew member instructions. Safety instructions are designed to keep you safe. Before your hot air balloon flight, your pilot will run through a safety presentation. Although everything in the presentation is important, landing positions are very important and we’ll run through them here:

  1. In any situation, the safest place for you to be is in the hot air balloon basket. Do not get out of the hot air balloon basket until the pilot tells you it is safe or the balloon is completely deflated.
  2. All passengers should be holding onto the safety handles firmly with both hands. Prior to landing cameras, phones, and anything you might be holding in your hands should be stored
  3. Hot air balloon passengers should face backward with their backs firmly against the wicker balloon basket with knees bent. Essentially you will be doing a wall sit.
  4. If the pilot or crew member discovers you are not following the pilot instructions, they will most likely raise their voice with urgent direction. This is for your safety and is important that you follow all pilot instructions

This video below shows a fast wind landing with a passenger who is not following pilot instructions. You’ll notice the pilot gives direct instructions to make sure everyone is safe (reminding passengers to stay in the basket and hold on). You’ll notice that the male passenger is holding a phone camera instead of holding on to the safety handles. (This is not a crash landing. It is a fast landing in a hot air balloon that is lightly loaded with passengers due to the pilot dropping skydivers.) In windy areas around the country, it’s not rare to have tip over landings. Most passengers find it pretty fun and it is safe if passengers are following proper landing techniques. In Seattle where we fly balloons, we only have a few tip over landings per summer and only occur in the afternoons.

The Biggest Threat To Hot Air Balloons And All Aircraft Are Power Lines

Collision with power lines is extremely rare (contact with power lines happens a handful of times a year in the entire world). In the rare event that a balloon makes contact with a power line, 95% of the time, balloon pilots do the correct emergency procedure, and no passengers or guests are injured. If there is a possibility of contact with a powerline balloon pilots are trained to quickly release hot air out of the balloon so that the basket is grounded when a strike occurs.

Pilots who fly in the same area know where most power lines are and give them plenty of altitude. Most power line incidents happen to balloonists that are not familiar with a flying site. When the pilot gives a safety briefing, they’ll cover a variety of things. They’ll mention that it is everyone’s job to look for power lines (especially if the balloon is within 500 ft of the ground). These extra sets of eyes help keep balloon flights safe.

Have A Fear Of Heights? Don’t worry!

Anniversary fun

If you are afraid of heights, you may have trouble with activities such as climbing ladders, being on roofs, or standing on balconies. This fear is common and is known as acrophobia. One reason people may be afraid of these activities is because they are afraid of slipping and falling. However, when it comes to hot air balloon rides, falling is not a concern. In fact, a recent study among balloon pilots found that the majority of them are scared of heights themselves and avoid activities like climbing ladders or standing on balconies. Surprisingly, they don’t experience that fear while flying in a hot air balloon, even though they are thousands of feet above the ground in a wicker basket. So, even if you have a fear of heights, you can still enjoy a hot air balloon ride without any concerns.

Setting up the hot air balloon basket at sunrise. Sun rays coming through the balloon burners
Setting up the hot air balloon basket at sunrise. Sun rays coming through the balloon burners

Hot Air Balloons Are Simple Machines With Few Moving Parts

Hot air balloons are straightforward machines compared to other types of aircraft. Airplanes have multiple pieces of electronic equipment and thousand of moving parts that could impact the flight. Hot air balloons are very simple:

Hot air balloons have 3 parts: The hot air balloon basket or gondola, the fuel and burner system, and the envelope.

Hot air balloon basket
Hot air balloon basket

The hot air balloon basket starts with a steel frame and steel cables. In between the steel, the wicker is weaved to create the basket. Why use wicker? It’s flexible and light! The steel cables connect to the burner frame and the balloon cables with steel carabiners.

The propane burner system is very simple. Most balloons have 40-80 gallons of liquid propane in steel fuel tanks. The liquid propane is sucked up into the hoses and released next to a pilot light. The pilot light ignites the propane and creates a large 25-foot flame. Hot air balloons have 2 separate fuel and burner systems as a redundancy. Pilots turn on the burner to ascend and let the balloon cool to start a descent.

What Happens If There Is An Issue With The Hot Air Balloon Equipment?

Unlike fixed wing aircraft, in-flight equipment issues or emergencies are super rare in balloons. In the case of significant failures to propulsion, all aircraft have what’s called a glide ratio. Balloons have a very slow one as there is an opening at the bottom of the balloon envelope that turns the balloon into a parachute. In the rare case that both systems had an issue, the balloon would slowly float to the ground. The terminal velocity of a hot air balloon is slower than a WWII army parachute. It would be a hard landing, but you would be just fine.

Issues with hot air balloon equipment often happens when passengers have already unloaded and the balloon is being deflated. Laying the balloon fabric over barbwire fences, or over sharp objects on the ground can cause small tears or rips in the fabric. If holes or small tears occur, pilots will check their manual about utilizing a small patch. For larger holes, it may require the pilot to visit their local hot air balloon repair station.

How Common Are Hot Air Balloon Accidents?

Hot air ballooning accidents are very rare. Ballooning is a very safe form of transportation and leisure activity. In fact, hot air balloon accidents in the commercial realm are so rare that the media about ballooning incidents are widely covered. Commercial hot air balloon pilots are highly trained and have a great deal of experience, which makes them very safe compared to pilots of other types of aircraft, such as small private planes. Overall, hot air ballooning is a fun and exciting way to experience the beauty of the world from a unique perspective, and the safety record of this activity is a testament to the skill and dedication of hot air balloon pilots.

Can People Get Injuries From Flying In A Hot Air Balloon?

Hot air ballooning, like any activity involving a moving vehicle, aircraft, or being around heavy equipment machinery carries inherent risks that can lead to both major and minor injuries. Most injuries in aviation, including hot air ballooning, often occur due to poor decision-making, particularly in relation to weather conditions. Pilots who choose to fly in marginal or poor weather conditions significantly increase the risk of accidents. Additionally, the physical and mental sharpness required for piloting can diminish with age, and elderly pilots may not always make the best flying decisions. If your friend has a hot air balloon and are a private pilot, they likely will only fly in perfect conditions. If you are looking for the safest option you’ll want to find paid hot air balloon rides in your area. Therefore, it is crucial for passengers to select hot air balloon companies that prioritize safety. These companies typically have strict policies against flying in adverse weather conditions such as thunderstorms, poor visibility, or high winds. By choosing operators who are committed to safety and who make prudent decisions regarding weather and flight conditions, passengers can significantly reduce their risk of injury while enjoying the unique experience of hot air ballooning. The most common injuries are sprained ankles and typically occur after a hot air balloon has landed while passengers are exiting the basket.

What Are The Hot Air Balloon Regulations?

To be a commercial hot air balloon pilot, an individual must have a commercial pilot’s license with a hot air balloon rating from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, the individual must have a current 2nd class medical certificate from an FAA-approved medical examiner. It is also important for the pilot to have a thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations governing hot air balloon flights, as well as experience flying a hot air balloon. In order to obtain the necessary license and rating, an individual must complete a certain amount of balloon flight training and pass a written exam, as well as a flight test. Balloon pilots are regulated under Part 91 of the federal regulations for aircraft.

Which Is Safer: Hot Air Ballooning Or Skydiving

Hot air ballooning is hundreds of times safer than skydiving. The main reason is that a hot air balloon is an aircraft, and as such, it is subject to stricter safety regulations and inspections than skydiving equipment.

Hot air ballooning is also much safer than skydiving as a hot air balloon pilot can control their altitude. This means that the pilot can adjust the altitude of the balloon to avoid obstacles and navigate adverse weather conditions. In contrast, skydivers are at the mercy of the elements and have little control over their descent once they jump out of the airplane.

Furthermore, becoming a hot air balloon pilot has a much greater impact on other people than skydiving does. This is because hot air balloon pilots are responsible for the safety of their passengers and anyone on the ground who may be affected by the flight. In contrast, skydivers only have to worry about their own safety. This added responsibility for others means that hot air balloon pilots must be highly trained and proficient in their skills to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Hot Air ballooning safer than skydiving
Hot Air ballooning safer than skydiving

Skydiving From A Hot Air Balloon?

Skydiving from a hot air balloon presents a unique and exhilarating experience, often listed as a bucket-list adventure for many skydiving enthusiasts. Unlike jumping from an airplane, this method offers a serene, almost surreal ascent before the adrenaline-packed leap, allowing divers to enjoy the quiet majesty of the skies.

Risks For Hot Air Balloon Pilots Who Drop Skydivers

However, safety protocols for such operations are stringent, particularly concerning the number of divers that can leave the basket at any given time. Typically, balloon operation manuals allow only a single skydiver to exit at a time. Only after the ascent of the balloon is stopped can another skydiver leave the basket. The best practice is only to let a skydiver out of the basket when the balloon is in a descent over 200 feet per minute. This restriction is primarily due to the balloon manufacturer’s limitations on the balloon’s rate of ascent.

So in an ideal world (and according to all the Manuals) you need to be in a descent. Take the Cameron Flight Supplement 8.29 ‘Dropping Parachutists’ as an example. They quote 200ft/min for one parachutist, 400 for two and a heady 700 for three. Ultramagic has Supplement 11 and is pretty much the same quoting 200ft/min per parachutist up to a maximum of three. Lindstrand courteously incorporate the information in their Flight Manual under 2.5.1 ‘Dropping stuff’ and recommend that no more than 30% of the balloon’s maximum weight is released at any one time and has a rate of descent of approximately 500ft/min is established. If you choose to drop two, one after the other, then you must allow time for the balloon to recover and get back into a descent if it isn’t already in one. Kubicek balloons 4.3.12 limits exiting parachutists to 1 at a time.

Hot Air Balloon Manual About Skydiving from hot air balloon
Hot Air Balloon Operations Manual About Skydiving From Hot Air Balloon

Dropping multiple skydivers simultaneously could cause the balloon to ascend more rapidly than advised, potentially leading to dangerous situations for the occupants of the balloon. A rapid ascent might cause the balloon’s vent (parachute top) to float, creating pressure issues within the aircraft that are challenging to rectify. Floating of parachute tops can also occur due to a thermal or a pilot over heating the balloon envelope. Both these situations would cause the balloon to rise beyond the manufactures limitations. Pilots are trained on how to deal with a top that floats during a thermal if it were to occur. This high risk of an emergency occurring due to dropping skydivers in general, is significant enough that the majority of balloon pilots prefer not to engage in dropping skydivers at all. The careful balance maintained in hot air balloon operations underscores the importance of adhering to safety guidelines, ensuring that the thrill of skydiving from such a unique platform remains a memorable and safe experience for all involved.

Do Passengers Wear Parachutes On Hot Air Balloons?

Passengers on a hot air balloon ride do not need to use parachutes for a few reasons. The most important reason is that the balloon itself serves as a parachute. This is because hot air balloons are designed to float and descend slowly, even in the event of an emergency or malfunction.

Unlike airplanes, hot air balloons do not rely on engines or other mechanical systems to stay aloft. Instead, they are filled with heated air, which makes them lighter than the surrounding air. This allows them to rise and float in the sky, much like a balloon filled with helium.

When a hot air balloon is in trouble, the pilot can release some of the heated air from the balloon to make it descend. This allows the balloon to float down to the ground safely, even if the balloon has lost altitude or is experiencing some other problem.

Additionally, hot air balloons are typically equipped with backup systems, such as additional burners or reserve tanks of fuel, to help the pilot maintain control of the balloon even in an emergency.

Can A Hot Air Balloon Pop?

No. A hot air balloon can’t pop or rupture because it is made of fabric (Ripstop Nylon Envelopes, Hyperlast, or Polyester), which are all strong and flexible material. Additionally, hot air balloon pilots take care to properly inflate and maintain their balloons, which helps to prevent ballooning accidents. In the United States, hot air balloons are also required to undergo yearly inspections by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by certified hot air balloon repair stations. These inspections help to ensure the safety and proper functioning of the hot air balloon, further reducing the likelihood of accidents. In short, the combination of strong fabric materials and regular inspections make hot air balloons very safe and reliable forms of transportation.

What If A Bird Flies Into A Hot Air Balloon?

Hot air balloon pilots are not worried about birds. If a bird were to collide with a hot air balloon, it would likely bounce off without causing any harm to either the bird or the hot air balloon. The balloon’s strong, durable fabric would prevent the bird from puncturing it, and the bird’s light weight would not cause any damage to the balloon. The bird would simply fly away, unharmed.

What If Hot Air Balloons Touch While Flying?

When hot air balloons touch in flight, it’s often referred to as a “hot air balloon kiss.” This gentle contact is quite safe since the balloons are drifting together with the same wind. Such delightful encounters are common at balloon festivals, where anywhere from 30 to 600 balloons might be soaring at once. For instance, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta sees an impressive gathering of 500 to 700 hot air balloon pilots each year, all launching from a single field. To keep things safe, pilots adhere to a minimum ascent and descent rate of 200 feet per minute. Balloon festivals are truly remarkable experiences, blending breathtaking visuals with a spirit of camaraderie. As long as the pilots remain vigilant, these events are perfectly safe, making balloon festivals a cherished highlight for both participants and spectators alike.

Are Hot Air Balloons Dangerous For Animals?

Hot air balloons are generally not dangerous for animals they fly over, and pilots take significant measures to minimize any disturbance to farm animals. Except during the processes of taking off and landing, all aircraft under part 91 of the Federal Flight Regulations are required to fly at least 500 feet above the ground. One of the challenges with ballooning is that the landing process can be prolonged, sometimes necessitating lower altitudes.

To help minimize the impact on animals, hot air balloon pilots use several techniques. One of the key tools is a whisper burner or whisper valve (otherwise known as the cow burner), a second lever on the burners that controls a direct liquid propane valve. This valve is much quieter than the main blast valve, reducing the noise that could potentially startle animals.

It’s important to note that some animals are frightened by balloons, while others are not. At Seattle Ballooning, we have never had an incident where an animal injured itself due to a balloon. We work closely with local property owners to understand where vulnerable animals, such as those that have been abused or are older, are kept. In these areas, we take extra care to maintain a higher altitude to avoid causing any distress.

We empathize with farm animal owners and are committed to ensuring that our flights do not disturb their animals. Our pilots are trained to be considerate and to prioritize the well-being of both the animals and the enjoyment of the ballooning experience.

Hot Air Balloon Safety Tips For Passengers

  1. Research and Select a Reputable Operator:
    • Read reviews on hot air balloon companies before booking – Do not use hot air balloon companies that sell discounted tours or have low reviews. These companies typically have subpar equipment and safety records. The highest-priced operation is a good place to start.
    • Choose a commercial balloon operator who uses modern ballooning equipment and adheres to safety standards.
    • Ensure the operator has FAA-licensed commercial pilots.
    • Verify that the pilots have a minimum of 100 flight hours per year to guarantee experience and proficiency.
    • Chase Vehicles have seat belts. Seatbelts should be worn by passengers while driving
  2. Check Pilot Safety Equipment:
    • Confirm that pilots use a restraining harness during the flight for added safety. Although they are not required in the US, they are in Europe.
  3. Appropriate Attire:
    • Wear closed-toe shoes, preferably tennis shoes, for protection and comfort.
    • Dress in attire suitable for outdoor conditions, considering the landing might be in fields or uneven terrain.
    • Consider bringing a baseball hat or similar headwear, as the burner can add an additional 10-15 degrees of heat to passengers in the basket.
  4. Assess Physical Requirements:
    • Ensure you are physically capable of climbing in and out of the balloon basket.
    • Be aware that most balloon companies have weight restrictions and may not accommodate passengers over 250lb. This is due to the difficulty overweight individuals may have in getting in and out of the basket, and to comply with FAA regulations regarding the weight and balance of the aircraft.
    • Opt for companies offering baskets with doors if you have mobility concerns.
    • If you have recently had surgery, are pregnant, or have back, knee, or hip issues, you should consult your doctor before flying.
  5. Follow Pilot Instructions:
    • Pay close attention and adhere to all instructions provided by the pilot before and during the flight.
  6. Do Not Interfere with Equipment:
    • Avoid touching the black fuel lines or any ropes/lines in the pilot compartment to prevent accidents or malfunctions.
    • The burner flame is very hot. Only pilots should be touching the burner, they also typically wear gloves (although not required).
  7. Landing Position:
    • On landing, face away from the direction of travel.
    • If passenger restraints are provided, make sure to utilize them.
    • Even with restraints, passengers should still perform wall sits and hold on with two hands for added stability and safety.
    • Hold onto the rope handles at waist level to secure yourself.
  8. Post-Landing Protocol:
    • Remain in the balloon until the pilot confirms it is safe to exit.
    • Understand that exiting prematurely can cause the balloon to become buoyant and potentially take off again.

Balloonists Are Obsessed With Safety

One thing that balloonists do better than most aviation communities is learning from each other. All balloon pilots join local and national safety seminars (both in-person and online). Our chief pilot, Eliav at Seattle Ballooning, helps run a worldwide safety and training webinar. The Balloon Federation Of America also sponsors safety seminars to help prevent accidents.

In conclusion, hot air ballooning is safe and not scary. The only thing that can make it dangerous are people who don’t take safety seriously. We look forward to continuing to have you as a guest on our balloon trips.

Now that you know how safe hot air balloons are, check out when the hot air balloon was invented and take a peek back into the history of balloon flying!

Pilot eliav
Hot Air Balloon Pilot Eliav C.
About the Author

Chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning. I get the opportunity to provide luxury hot air balloon rides just South of Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier. When you do what you love, it’s not considered work.

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