Most folks are aware of the hot air balloon tragedy that happened in July, 2016 near Austin, Texas. For those that haven’t, I’ll share the currently known details of it in a moment. For those that are aware of the accident, it would be beneficial to address the safety procedures that we follow for every flight, and how we work to avoid balloon accidents like this.
On July 30, 2016, a fatal balloon flight occurred when a hot air balloon carrying 16 people flew into some very large power transmission lines near Lockhart, Texas. Although the results of the NTSB investigation have not yet been finalized and specific details have not yet been released, there are practices that can be followed to avoid the risk of powerline strikes. I would like to address these safety practices, and avoid any opinions on the accident before the full results of the investigation have been released.
POWERLINES. POWERLINES. POWERLINES. They are too important of a focus within ballooning to only say the word once. Fatal balloon accidents are very rare. Over the past 50 years, there have only been 70 fatalities in hot air balloons in the United States, according to the NTSB. Of those accidents, powerline strikes have been the cause of many. Therefore, powerline avoidance is the highest priority for every balloon pilot.
Accidents happen in every walk of life, in every activity and hot air ballooning is no different. However, in comparison with other unique activities, especially within the aviation realm, balloons themselves are inherently very safe. Often, balloon accidents begin with pilot error, poor judgement, or lack of focus.
There are 4 essential ways to ensure hot air balloon safety:
1. Preparation: This includes a thorough weather analysis, that continues through the pre-flight balloon setup. Poor visibility due to fog or low clouds, convection, air turbulence, and wind speeds that are too high or gusty are all conditions that would ground a balloon flight from launching. Preparation also includes making sure the equipment is maintained and ready for flight; all equipment has been safety-checked before liftoff, tanks and inflator fans have been refueled, radios charged, and all tools for the flight are available and in perfect working condition. Briefing the passengers about what to expect, and what is expected of them is also part of the pre-flight preparation. I am also a very big proponent of having extra fuel on hand for each flight in order to make sure that we determine our own landing site, and not risk a shortage of fuel determining it for us.
2. Focus: Focus is a safety attribute that can be overlooked, as it may seem obvious. A hot air balloon pilot’s focus should cover all aspects of the balloon operation, such as fuel management, balloon maneuvering, weather awareness, passenger behavior, navigating to a landing site, and being aware of surroundings at all times. Focus is maintaining concentration toward the most important task at hand, flying the balloon, even when outside stimulus can distract a pilot’s attention. Focus during a flight is a state of mind that is learned, which brings us to our next safety topic…
3. Experience: There is no substitute for experience. Any pilot can make mistakes, however, a pilot’s proper training and experience can be a tremendous asset to hot air balloon safety. Rohr Balloons takes hot air balloon safety very seriously and we call on our vast experience to make important decisions for each and every flight ensuring a safe and enjoyable balloon flight experience for all of our passengers.
4. FAA Requirements: Balloons and balloon pilots are regulated by the FAA, as are pilots of other aircraft such as fixed wing and rotor wing. One difference in regulation is the lack of a Medical Certificate requirement for balloon pilots. A “Medical” is a thorough examination by a designated medical examiner that investigates a pilot’s physical, mental, neurological, and cardiovascular condition, as well as drug/alcohol dependency or abuse. I expect that we will soon see a requirement to hold a current 2nd class medical certificate in order to practice the commercial pilot privileges for LTA. It is my opinion that this would be a very good step to protect passengers from flying with pilots that are not in the necessary shape to safely operate a hot air balloon commercially.
The bottom line is that passengers’ safety should be any pilot’s highest priority! I invite you to come fly with us!