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.
Ballooning is very low risk from the FAA’s perspective
From a statistical point (The Aviation Accident Database), the FAA finds that hot air ballooning is the safest form of all air travel and rarely involved in aviation crashes. In fact, the FAA has found that you are more likely to be injured driving a car than flying in an airplane or hot air balloon! There are a variety of reasons why hot air ballooning accidents are so rare. The main reason hot air ballooning is so safe is that, unlike fixed-wing aircraft, hot air balloons only fly in good weather and slow wind.
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?
Are there times that balloons get caught in fast wind? Yes.
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 8-18Kt. 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:
- 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.
- 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
- Hot air balloon passengers should face backward with their backs firmly against the wicker with knees bent. Essentially you will be doing a wall sit.
- 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 is 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!
A common phobia is acrophobia. Acrophobia is the fear of heights. Over 25% of all people in the world have this fear of heights. What’s fascinating is the even people with extreme fear of heights do just fine on hot air balloon rides. Odd right? In a recent study among balloon pilots, it was discovered that the majority of balloon pilots are scared of heights. They don’t like being on ladders, roofs, or balconies. Surprisingly the fear doesn’t show up when they are thousands of feet above the earth in a wicker basket.
Hot air balloons are simple machines with very 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.
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 propane in steel 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.
What happens if there is an issue with the equipment?
#1 it is 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.
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.
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 in the history of ballooning!