Hot air balloons are a great way to see the world in a way not many people ever will. Offering you views from high in the air in a peaceful, slow paced balloon with little noise, a hot air balloon ride will provide you with an unparalleled experience. Although it seems like a fun way to see sights from a different perspective and it looks super fun, are they safe?
Of course, when you are about to travel hundreds or thousands of feet in the air, safety is something you want to be sure of before you hop on board.
When It comes to aerial travel, hot air balloons are one of the least regulated forms. This is mainly because unlike other forms of transportation, balloons have limited mobility.
Reviews and inspections on hot air balloons are also a little relaxed compared to other types of aerial transportation. For example, helicopter pilots and airplane pilots must keep a letter of authorization reporting on the periodic inspection of how their flights are conducted, and hot air balloon pilots are not. These reports would tell us that the operator has been maintaining their equipment and have been performing safely. Having a record like this with them would help to ensure companies that hire pilots that they are experienced and trustworthy. Hot air balloons are only inspected once for every 100 hours spend in the air. Pilots are also only required to perform a flight review once every 2 years.
Training for any type of pilot is a long process, except for hot air balloons. Pilots for hot air balloons only need to complete 10 hours of training and complete 2 monitored flights and 1 solo flight before they become licensed. Being that balloons are steered using shifting wind directions and elevation, it should take a lot more flights than just 3 to proficiently grasp the concept.
To be a commercial pilot you must complete 35 hours of training and 20 flights (10 flights with a trainer) to become licensed. Although this sounds a little better, a helicopter pilot still requires more hours than that at 40. To get a job as a helicopter pilot, most places require at least 200 hours of flight time recorded so you will have to train a lot more than what is required to be licensed. An airplane pilot requires even more training at 1500 hours to become licensed. As you can see, the training and hour requirement for balloon pilots is pretty relaxed compared to other modes of flight. Being that you cannot steer a hot air balloon, you would think that more training would be required.
The Balloon Itself
Modern day hot air balloons are built to perfection. The nylon envelopes (the balloon itself) are made with Polyurethane coated ripstop nylon. The material is all handsewn to ensure that nothing goes un-done. In higher quality balloons, thicker nylon is used in areas where the heat is directed and that helps the envelope keep its life longer.
Baskets are normally hand woven with rattan or willow. The sides are normally reinforced with leather and the floor is usually plywood. Baskets are made with certain weight limits, and as long as they aren’t overloaded there is nothing to worry about with their durability.
Unlike airplanes and helicopters, a little bit of rain will affect a hot air balloon. The weather is a big hazard when it comes to hot air balloon flight and definitely affects it more than it does other aerial vehicles.
Luckily, air balloon companies will not allow their vessels to be in the air in inclement weather. It is very common for hot air balloons flights that have been pre booked to be cancelled due to bad weather.
Bad weather for hot air balloons also includes the wind. If it is going to be very windy, hot air balloons will not usually fly that day. Since wind is what controls the balloons flight pattern, fast winds can throw a balloon off course rather quickly.
Objects are another hazard when it comes to hot air balloons. Trees, buildings, and weather vanes are all common contributors to hot air balloon hazards. As you think about all of the pointy objects around that could cause damage to the hot air balloon, it is actually very unlikely. Actually, more often than that, the basket actually gets caught on these items rather than the balloon being punctured. Of course, these things will only be a hazard upon landing because these things aren’t thousands of feet in the air, so it is important to have a pilot that knows where and how to land properly.
Power lines are the number one biggest cause of hot air balloon accidents. That is because they are often hard to see, they are hard to avoid if you see them too late to steer the balloon away, and the fact that you are travelling in an object full of hot gas near an electrical wire doesn’t help either. It is always suggested to travel in a place that is very secluded and power lines aren’t present, however in modern times they are practically everywhere and are sometimes just unavoidable. Your pilot should be comfortable landing in areas that have them and know how to avoid them.
When in an accident
There isn’t a whole lot you can do when you are in a hot air balloon accident. If you strike a powerline and the balloon catches fire, you will be lucky if you survive. If the pilot is okay during the crash, they may be able to lower the balloon, but it is unlikely.
If you strike an object that punctures the balloon, the pilot may be able to land the balloon. The landing will be rough and you may topple in the gondola, however it is possible to survive.
If the basket gets stuck on something while you are in the air, the pilot may be able to free the balloon or try to lower and raise the balloon in an attempt to wiggle out of the situation. These types of accidents are usually not as concerning and can almost always be corrected.
If severe weather begins unexpectedly while you are in the air, the best thing to do is to attempt to land as soon as possible. It is important to be familiar with the area you are flying over at all times in case you have to make an emergency landing. This will prevent crashes of any other type while attempting to land in a spot that is not your usual especially in the case of inclement weather where visibility is limited. It is very important that your pilot is aware of the weather conditions on the day of flying. This should always be a number one concern before taking off on your flight.
Famous Accidents and their cause
1785- the first fatal accident on record. A French balloon pilot along with one other passenger were flying when a stray spark from the balloon’s heat source caused the balloon to catch fire. The fire was not the cause of their death but rather the fall. Everything from the waist down on both passengers was broken which was ultimately the cause of their death.
1968- This accident was filmed and actually appeared in a film that was released in 1979 called “Days of Fury”. This accident was caused by a balloon striking a Tower causing it to plummet to the ground. 3 passengers were killed in this accident.
1979- This crash happened in Florida and was caused by a balloon colliding with powerlines. The gondola made contact with the powerlines which caused it to catch fire. The 4 passengers all jumped from the balloon at 100ft, 1,000ft, and 1,500 ft. This was their cause of death.
1981- A very skilled and experienced balloon pilot was awe struck as a heavy wind came through at 25mph and threw his balloon into the powerlines while attempting to land with 5 others on board. 5 of the 6 passengers on board all perished in the accident. The sole survivor had jumped out of the gondola when he first saw that the balloon was on fire after striking the 35,000 voltage powerlines. He fell 40 feet and had burns over 25 percent of his body, but he survived. His only wish is that the rest of the passengers would have jumped with him.
1989- At its time this was the deadliest balloon crash in the world. 2 hot air balloons collided in the air. The two were taking off right after each other, and the lower balloon was rising too quickly underneath the higher balloon. The lower balloon’s envelope seemed to swallow up the gondola of the higher balloon which caused a tear in it. The fault of the accident was on both balloon pilots. The higher balloon pilot did not give way for the lower balloon to take off as he was instructed, the lower balloon pilot did not properly assess the higher balloons position, and neither pilot contacted one another to avoid this situation. The accident caused all 12 passengers and the 1 pilot to perish in their 2,000-foot descent to earth. 10 of the bodies were found still in the gondola, while 3 others were found on a beach nearby who had apparently jumped or been ejected during the fall.
2016- This Is the deadliest hot air balloon crash in the United States and it was caused by a pilot who should have had his license revoked due to a long history of operating while under the influence. The balloon came in contact with a powerline and became engulfed in flames. This resulted in the death of all 16 people on board
2013- The deadliest hot air balloon in the entire world to date occurred in Luxor Egypt. A leaking fuel line was to blame for this accident, which caused the balloon with 20 passengers plus the pilot on board to catch fire. The fire resulted in the death of 19 of the 21 passengers. The two survivors jumped from the balloon at about 10 feet. One of the survivors, the pilot, was engulfed in flames when he decided to jump and miraculously still survived. The balloon rose as a result of the weight loss of the 2 passengers, and 4 others then decided to jump around 70-100ft. After the 4 others jump the balloon rose to 1,000 feet and eventually became completely deflated and plummeted to the earth with the remaining passengers still on board.
While most accidents you can read about are caused by powerlines, you can see here that others are caused by a myriad of problems. This is why it is important to always be sure your pilot is educated, you never attempt a flight in inclement weather, and always be sure that the balloon has been inspected before a flight is taken.