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Hot Air Balloon Awareness

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Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to increase flight crew's awareness of these aerial devices. Pilots of fixed wing transport aircraft rarely encounter hot air balloons as a potential collision risk. Typically (though not exclusively) these encounters happen around/soon after dawn, during the descend from an often long-haul night cruise towards the destination.

Legal provisions

Under the Standardised European Rules of the Air, civil Rules of the Air Regulations or military Regulatory Publications, all aircraft give way to balloons (SERA.3210 Right-of-way).

Specifics

There are a number of differences between ballons and other aircraft, the most notable of them being:

  • Size - although holding relatively few occupants (usually 20 or less) balloons tend to have a spheric shape with diameter similar to most airliners (e.g. BOEING 737-800).
  • Place of operation - balloon flights usually tend to avoid steep and rocky terrain and immediate coastal areas. The flights take place mostly outside controlled airspace.
  • Time of operation - in order to fly in the most stable conditions and to avoid thermal activity, balloons are normally operated early in the morning and during the three hours prior to sunset during the summer period. It is possible to fly at any time during daylight hours on a calm winter's day. Very rarely, sporting and recreational balloon flights are made at night, but these are invariably planned to land after sunrise. Activity is usually higher at weekends and on public holidays.
  • Groups - organised events may amass large number of balloons (e.g. 100 or more). These are usually promulgated by NOTAM.
  • Flight rules - balloon flights must be conducted under Visual Flight Rules (VFR).
  • Levels - commercial balloons often fly below 2000 ft, affording the best view for their passengers, but can be found up to FL 100. During flight, a balloon may also descend towards points of interest, for example lakes. If a balloon is seen to be close to touching the water it is probably not in any difficulty.
  • Duration - flights commonly last for about one hour, but this can be extended considerably if a suitable landing site cannot be found on track. Fuel duration varies with the balloon size and conditions, but is normally between 1.5 and 2 hours. The balloon will usually descend to low level for the last 15 to 20 minutes of the planned flight in order to assess the low level winds and to manoeuvre for landing.
  • Vertical movement - descent is achieved either by letting the hot air inside the balloon envelope cool naturally or by opening the parachute vent in the top of the envelope (which reseals once the control line is released). Operation of the vent will cause the balloon to descend rapidly until more hot air is added to arrest the descent. Normal descent rate is less than 600 ft per minute and a large passenger balloon will rarely exceed this below 2000 ft AGL as it may not be possible to recover even with the use of all burners. The manufacturer's stated limit for climbing and descending is between 800 and 1000 ft per minute - surprisingly quick - and a balloon in this mode of flight will usually be unable to reverse this climb or descent quickly and should be given a wide berth.
  • Directional control - a pilot can ‘steer’ a balloon using the wind directions between the surface and the gradient wind direction, which may vary by 30° or more. This often occurs during early morning flights and the balloon may be seen to climb or descend rapidly to achieve such steerage.
  • Communication - normally, balloonists communicate with their retrieve teams and with other balloons using hand-held radios. The same radios are used for ATC communications, when required. Some commercial balloons that are regularly operated in and around controlled airspace carry a lightweight Mode-S transponder. However, SSR equipment is not yet common in balloons.

Further Reading