There may be few things more beautiful on a clear summer evening, just before sunset, than the vision of a hot air balloon gliding through the air, high above the trees, seeming to skim the clouds. For many people, it’s an ultimate bucket list item – something they dream of experiencing once in a lifetime. And southeast Michigan, with its magnificent topography of inland lakes, rolling hills, natural wooded areas, and plentiful wildlife offers a premier location to float through the air overhead, forgetting about the travails of everyday life for an hour or two.
Few people think about how safe their balloon is, or the qualifications of their hot air balloon pilot when they’re booking that coveted balloon flight. While serenity doesn’t come cheap, with many local balloon operators charging $200 a person for a multi-passenger basket to $700 for a couple for a private flight ending with a glass of champagne, most people don’t think to ask if their pilot is certified, how many hours they’ve flown, if their balloon has been regularly inspected or if they’ve had any previous accidents. Yet those may be far more important questions for potential passengers to ask than where the pilot plans to fly, and what fauna and flora they will have the opportunity to see during their ride.
The majority of hot air balloon rides are safe, with riders coming away with nothing but memories. But some safety officials have been concerned that there is not the same level of oversight applied to the commercial hot air balloon industry as there is to airplane and helicopter tour companies, with some balloon pilots nationwide seeing economic incentives as the reason to take risks in non-optimal weather, or by pilots with less than necessary experience or questionable medical backgrounds. The National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) was concerned enough that they made recommendations in 2014, to apply greater oversight to the industry, warning there could be a high fatality crash at some point. Sadly, that fear came to fruition on July 30, 2016, near Lockhart, Texas, when 16 people, including the pilot, had their morning hot air balloon flight end in a fiery crash after the pilot made a series of poor choices, including taking off in poor weather, with a drug cocktail in his system that would have barred him from flying – if there had been a federal regulation preventing and monitoring his medical records and his medical state.
While manned hot air balloons must be inspected annually, according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, hot air balloon pilots have minimal rules they must follow, few hours in the air in order to receive certification, and are not subject to medical exams nor little FAA oversight in comparison to other aviation pilots. An FAA report noted it is “exceptionally easy to obtain a commercial pilot certificate” to fly hot air balloons, including “eleven-story-tall behemoths” that can carry more than a dozen passengers and can be challenging to steer. The report noted that federal training rules do not differentiate between smaller, more intimate balloons and these larger balloons, which are subject to less FAA oversight than banner-towing airplanes that have a single pilot aboard.
While those in the sport contend that flying a hot air balloon is much safer than flying any other aircraft as there are only a half-dozen parts in a balloon, versus dozens in even the simplest glider, there still are accidents, with most caused by pilot error. That was evidenced when FAA Chief Michael Huerta replied in 2015 to the NTSB in a letter that “since the number of balloon flights nationwide is so low, the agency believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low.” The FAA maintains a registry of complaints on pilots and poor performing balloon companies, but it is unclear how often it is updated.
Since 1964, NTSB has conducted investigations into about 775 hot air balloon accidents in the United States, in which there were 70 fatalities. By contrast, there were 138 plane crashes just in 2013, according to International Business Times, with 462 fatalities in just that year. Between 2002 and 2012, 16 people died in hot air balloon accidents; in just the United States, since 2005, there were over 140 reported hot air ballon accidents. And on one horrendous day last July 30, another 16 people died in what is considered one of the worst hot air balloon accidents in modern history, when balloon pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols took off near Austin, Texas, in fog and low-level clouds, on a day when other pilots refused to fly, stating the weather made it too dangerous to fly. The balloon hit a power line Nichols couldn’t see due to the weather when rain began, igniting the balloon. The accident killed Nichols and all 15 passengers. It was the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history.
Even more concerning, after the accident, it was discovered that Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who had served time in prison and was prohibited to drive a car because of numerous DWI convictions, and had a whole medicine cabinet of medications in his system, including Valium, Prozac and the painkiller oxycodone, when he was piloting the balloon – all of which were technically “permitted” because the FAA does not have a regulation that mandates medical testing of hot air balloon pilots, instead preferring a system of self-monitoring.
And while FAA safety inspector Wayne Phillips of the Detroit district office had warned of the possibility of a deadly crash in an 18-page FAA report in 2012 because oversight of the balloon industry is “minimal or non-existent,” many others, from the head of the Balloon Federation of America to commercial hot air balloon pilots believe the Texas accident was a one-off, an anomaly, and that the industry is safe. Phillips, who said he is prohibited by the FAA from speaking about ballooning safety, wrote in a November 2012 FAA safety white paper report that he “strongly urged agency officials to impose the same level of oversight to the commercial balloon industry as is applied to airplane and helicopter tour companies,” citing a high balloon tour accident rate and significant economic incentives for balloon companies to take safety risks. The report also stated that commercial operators, whose balloons are supposed to be flown by professionally licensed balloon pilots, accounted for more than half of all U.S. ballooning accidents between 2010 and 2012. “This data provides ample justification for enhanced FAA oversight,” the report contended.
Included in his proposals for oversight, Phillips recommended drug tests for balloon pilots – the only aeronautical pilots who do not have to be drug tested or have a medical exam at any point, a regulation going back to the 1930s. The FAA did not adopt any of his proposals, although since reviewing the Texas accidents, there are some efforts to reform the medical exam requirement for balloon pilots.
The first hot air balloons date back to 1783, in Paris, France, when brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier flew an unmanned hot air balloon for a 10-minute flight. A few weeks later, a free passenger flight was held, and shortly thereafter, in 1794, a hot air balloon was used in France for military use, for observation during a battle.
Today’s hot air balloons were revolutionized, so to speak, or reinvented for a contemporary world, in the 1950s, with an onboard heat source added. Hot air balloons which carry a pilot and passengers have a gondola, or a basket, a single-layered fabric gas bag, or envelope, similar to a parachute with an opening at the bottom that balloonists refer to as the mouth, or throat. Mounted above the basket and centered in the mouth is the “burner,” which injects a flame into the envelope, heating the air inside of it. As the air heats, the balloon rises, with the wind carrying it aloft. Many hot air balloons currently in use are still referred to as “Montgolfier” balloons.
“I have flown all over the country, and have had flights over the Swiss and Austrian Alps because they’re so spectacular, as well as over Niagara Falls,” said Gordon Boring, owner of Wicker Basket Balloon Center out of Wixom, who is beginning his 41st season. “Every flight there is something special. But Michigan is kinda unique. In the southwest, the desert is all the same from every direction. Michigan’s got rolling hills, lakes, trees – everything.”
Boring is one of about a half-dozen commercial balloon operators in southeast Michigan, all of whom have been operating for decades. He and Scott Lorenz of Westwind Balloon Company in Plymouth, both said they watch out for one another, and know each other. “If we suspected anyone had an issue (like the Texas pilot), he would be booted, calls would be made to the insurance company and to the FAA,” Lorenz said. “We’re up in the air. We know who everyone else is who is up in the air. From my basket, I can look out and see all different directions.”
They, and their colleagues, each take up commercial hot air balloon flights – ones where there is a FAA-licensed pilot along with two, four, six, or more passengers in the basket for an approximately one-hour flight, either just after sunrise or just before sunset. Each southeast Michigan company has several licensed commercial pilots working for them.
“We fly one to two hours after sunrise, and one to two hours before sunset, when the weather is calmest and there is the least heat in the atmosphere,” explained Ted Garthier of FlyBalloon.Net of Pontiac, who began flying in the early 1970s, after visiting an older brother who was racing motorcycles in Iowa, and looked to get into another sport that wasn’t nearly as dangerous. “In midday, puffy clouds are good for gliders, but not for balloonists. And we don’t fly in winds more than 10 mph. Evenings are the nicest because the winds settle down.”
“Flying balloons isn’t hard – there are just three instruments,” Boring said. “It’s pretty primitive, and probably the easiest thing you could fly. It is, though, colorful, enjoyable, and a completely unique way to fly.”
The three instruments needed are a temperature gauge, to monitor the envelope temperature; an altimeter, to monitor the altitude above the ground; and a variometer, which indicates how fast the balloon is going up and coming back down.
“That’s it. It’s pretty simple,” Boring said.
“A hot air balloon I fly is regulated by the FAA and regulated by the same regulations as airplanes and any other aircraft,” said Garthier. “Every kind (of aircraft) has a specific license, but the rules and regulations are the same. But there are specifics to hot air balloons. If you’re flying a balloon, every year, you have to take your balloons to a FAA-certified repair station and they have to check it and certify that it is safe to fly.”
The rules and regulations are not exactly the same, noted Randy Coller, chief airport inspector, Michigan Aeronautics Commission, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), with the state standing back and letting the federal government provide the rules and regulations for hot air balloons and their pilots. “There’s not a lot of regulations that the state has (for hot air balloons). The federal government regulates everything above the earth,” he said. However, he said, “I think there’s quite a few regulations for balloons – for their airworthiness, construction, and maintenance. There’s not a lot of regulations compared to airplanes.”
The Code of Federal Regulations stated that the FAA is empowered to promote aviation safety by establishing safety standards for civil aviation, whether a hot air balloon, a glider, single engine plane, or a commercial jetliner. They also keep track of all registered aircraft, which includes hot air balloons, but unless a balloon is deregistered, the list may not be accurate and up to date, cautions Dean Carlton of the Balloon Federation of America.
“All balloons have a limited lifespan. The only part that is registered is the envelope, and new ones last between 15 and 20 years before needing to be replaced. Compare that to a Cessna, which can last 80 years,” Carlton noted.
Michigan has not seen the kinds, or volume, of accidents that some other parts of the country has seen relative to hot air balloons, FAA-certified balloon repair specialist Greg Garthier noted. “There are more accidents in the south and southwest, in Texas, Arizona, because there’s more activity. You lose six months of the year (in Michigan),” he said. He said there is also more use of larger baskets, which can hold a dozen to 18 or 20 people in them in the southwest part of the U.S. “The area is more conducive to flying them because of wide open large spaces.” He said larger basket balloons are not more dangerous, “but when you have an accident, there are more casualties because they’re larger.”
Garthier, formerly with a balloon manufacturer in Flint, Michigan, but now located to Longview, Texas, said the cause of hot air balloon accidents always come down to one cause.
“I have never heard of a balloon accident caused by anything but pilot error,” he said. “There has rarely been an accident due to equipment failure, to my knowledge. There has been equipment error – but that is because the pilot hasn’t done the proper maintenance, so it comes back down to pilot error.”
Other local balloon operators concur, as does MDOT’s Coller. “Here, in Michigan, they’re all using smaller balloons and they have good safety records. Out west and in the south, they use much larger balloons. And the thing with balloons, they go slow – typically the speed of whatever the wind blows. They’re just not going that fast. They’re like a big parachute, so if you crash, you’re likely going to survive. The biggest hazard is hitting a power line.”
“There are 4,000 balloons flying everyday in the summer, and maybe one hits a power line,” said Ted Garthier, Greg’s brother. “Normally it’s the pilot that’s the bad apple – taking chances, taking off in fog, or flying low. If you are scheduling a flight with a reputable company, it’s a very safe activity.”
According to the NTSB aviation accident final report, the last major accident in Michigan was on July 2, 2007 in Battle Creek, when a balloon caught fire after landing during the Battle Creek Field of Flight Hot Air Balloon Festival. One person was injured, following an hour-long flight in the air, when the pilot said, “the balloon landed safely in a yard.” When he looked inside the top of the balloon envelope, the “parachute top did not reseat.” He attempted to reseat the top by using a blast of heat from the burners, but that didn’t work.
The pilot said that he “knew the balloon would quickly sink down on top of the basket,” so he turned the burners and prepared to push the fabric away, and as the balloon envelope began to descend towards the ground, the pilot reported, “we suddenly had a fire in the basket,” which the pilot determined was coming from the burners. The pilot and his passenger were able to get out of the basket, and the passenger and bystanders were able to extinguish the fire.
The NTSB report said an examination of the balloon after the accident revealed the fuel valve for the whisper burners had been in the ‘on’ position.
An accident in Highland, Michigan, on July 23, 2003, left two people seriously injured, and eight with minor injuries, while two others escaped uninjured, after a hard landing by a pilot for Balloon Quest in Fenton. The NTSB reported that the pilot reported that surface winds were light when the 11 passengers and the pilot departed at 6:30 a.m., but about 30 minutes into the flight, lower level winds started to increase, and he began looking for “larger potential landing spots. Winds on approach to a large open field increased very rapidly. The trees just prior to my landing field began to move violently as I crossed just over them and into the field.”
Upon landing, the impact dragged the basket approximately 170 feet, with one passenger falling out of the basket. Once the balloon was secured, the pilot, who sustained minor injuries, attended to the injured passengers. He reported there had been no malfunction with the balloon prior to the incident.
A sightseeing balloon trip out of Howell on July 14, 1998, resulted in one serious injury after the weather suddenly changed, and the pilot had to land suddenly. The pilot said he had obtained two weather briefings before leaving at 7:30 p.m., with light winds coming from the west. As the flight progressed, “the pilot noticed dark clouds moving south towards his position. Approximately 15 minutes into the flight, he decided to find a place to land. The pilot then noticed power lines in his new flight direction and elected to land in a soybean field rather than attempt to fly over them.” He landed hard, and was dragged about 100 feet. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s failure to visually recognize hazards associated the meteorological phenomenon.
In the FAA’s regulations, it noted that “precipitation is often visible on chase vehicles long before it compromises a balloon’s inflight performance or gains a pilot’s attention. The crew can warn a pilot who is contour flying into the sun of power lines downwind or of livestock behind trees or buildings.” It continues, emphasizing that the environment a pilot flies in is a factor, “Weather is an element that can change over time and distance.”
Lorenz, who has been flying for 36 years all over the world, including for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, said that balloon pilots have become micro-meteorologists. “We now have greater technology, from Doppler radar, VAD wind profiles, which tells us about different winds all the way up. We send helium balloons up to track winds. It’s how we plan our flights, so we don’t end up over a lake or over the woods. It’s also why we don’t launch from the same site every time. We have our favorites, but because of different conditions, we launch from different places.
“It doesn’t have to be blue skies to have a good time, but you need 1000-foot minimum cloud deck,” Lorenz said in order to launch. “We fly within certain parameters – with winds that are less than 10 miles per hour, no thunderstorms within 50 miles, and no rain in our area that will hit our flight path. We don’t want the balloon to get wet. We can avoid serious weather.”
According to the FAA, unlike the rest of the aviation community, ballooning has no certified flight instructors – that role is filled by other balloon pilots, who teach one another how to fly. Pilots are only required to have 10 hours of flight time in the air in order to receive their license, along with both a written test and an oral test on basic aeronautic knowledge. “The FAA does the testing to determine if you have basic aeronautic knowledge, if you have the basic ability to fly the balloon, or aircraft, whether it’s a single-engine aircraft, helicopter or planes, or gliders. The FAA does the testing to make sure you have the basic knowledge to fly and then you’re allowed to take passengers up with a private license,” said Boring.
“It’s probably one of the easiest pilot certifications to get, because it’s a pretty benign aircraft,” MDOT’s Coller said. “That’s because it doesn’t go fast. Airplanes are fast – which is why they are fatal so much more often.”
Unlike the rest of the aviation community, according to FAA regulations, ballooning has no certified flight instructors; rather that position is filled by other balloon pilots who have obtained their commercial license. It also notes that there are a “limited number of part-time balloon training programs in the United States. Application for certification is voluntary...Balloons differ from general aviation aircraft in balloon pilots’ reliance on diverse human resources for flight. A safe balloon flight includes, but is not limited to, crew chief and ground crew, weather briefers, volunteers, spectators, ‘locals’ with current and unpublished information on roads and landing sites, landowners, and others who contribute assistance and information. Balloons differ from planes in their reliance on unlicensed, non-FAA-certified/recognized, and even first-time volunteers to assemble and support ground handling of a balloon. Crew action, or inaction, at any stage, can contribute as much to flight safety than pilot input. It often relies on many people beyond those onboard.”
To make money at the endeavor, Boring said, a commercial license is needed, with a few more hours at the helm, and “you’re tested for that, too.” A commercial pilot requires 20 hours of flight time by the FAA to receive a license. At that point, a pilot can teach others.
Boring, and several other local commercial balloon operators, acknowledge that a minimum of 10 hours in the air is not enough to become a private pilot, despite what the FAA requires.
“I think more is needed. I think the average person is not ready before about 15 hours (of flight experience),” Boring said. “It’s not hard, it’s just there’s a lot to learn. Once you get your license, there’s still a lot to learn.”
Dean Carlton, president of the Balloon Federation of America, agrees. “I’ve trained a lot of pilots, and in my opinion, you need more hours than the minimum requirements. In my experience, most balloon pilots need 20 to 25 hours to get their pilot’s license, and 40 to 45 hours, or more, to get their commercial license.”
A key thing, Carlton said, is that commercial pilots have the ability to teach other pilots how to fly balloons. “It adds to the complexity of knowledge,” he said. “It adds another component of their education, because to teach someone you have to know it even better.” He added that it is not always the newest pilots being involved in hot air balloon accidents, but often more experienced pilots. “It could be complacency, or not going through the full check list,” he said. “But every person you put in your basket is precious cargo.
“It’s not fun if it’s not safe – and since we do it for fun, that’s the goal.”
“I can’t say which are more dangerous – after all, cars are dangerous, and most people would say cars aren’t dangerous,” Coller continued. “But if they’re not handled properly, they’re dangerous. It’s the same thing. In our area, the balloon operators aren’t big operators, and we haven’t had a lot of the problems with them like in Texas – and in that situation, a lot of things went wrong.”
“Regulations are already there – you just have to follow them. Ballooning is a very simple form of aviation. We don’t have a lot of moving parts. We don’t make long flights – most are one-hour flights,” asserted Carlton. “There is quite a bit of legislation regulating balloons, it’s just that the regulations are very old.”
As to whether there should be more pilot regulation and training, Carlton responded, “It’s a challenge for the FAA, because regulations can only do so much. We do believe training needs to continue. And in NTSB report after NTSB report, it shows it’s pilot error after pilot error.”
Following a lengthy FAA and NTSB investigation into the deadly Texas crash last summer, it was determined that the accident was caused by poor pilot decision making, Carlton said. “There was poor weather, and he shouldn’t have flown in that weather.”
Back to that universal problem, pilot error.
But Skip Nichols had a further issue that the FAA has not addressed – after the accident, a toxicology report showed that he had a pharmaceutical cornucopia in his bloodstream while he was piloting. But because medical tests are not required of balloon pilots, as they are of other aircraft pilots, he was still permitted to fly. He was on a variety of 10 different drugs for everything from depression, chronic pain and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – all of which would have disqualified him from flying if balloon pilots were regulated by the FAA like other aeronautical pilots.
One expert witness at the NTSB hearing after the accident, Dr. Charles Chesanow, the FAA’s chief psychiatrist, noting that Nichol’s had taken everything from Tylenol to the painkiller oxycodone, the antidepressant Wellbutrin, the sedative Valium, a muscle relaxant, and the ADHD medication Ritalin, said he was on a “witches’ brew of prescription drugs,” stating it was difficult to measure how Nichols might have been impaired.
In the white paper the FAA’s Phillips wrote in 2012, he recommended that balloon pilots have mandated drug tests. When asked while writing this article, he said he stands by his white paper.
Carlton doesn’t think that’s necessary, even after Nichol’s crash, although he did put together a safety webinar that was widely watched by over 500 balloon pilots in March 2017. “It was poor decision making (by Nichols). As for medication, it’s always been self-reporting,” of health conditions and medications, he said.
Most local pilots agree. “It’s a self-policing sport,” Lorenz said, although acknowledging that some insurance policies require medical exams. “I’m fine with it. I’d take a medical exam today. We don’t need any bad actors or anyone in bad health.”
Coller of the Michigan Aeronautics Commission said they are relooking at the medical exam, and instead of beefing up the requirements for balloon and glider pilots, they’re looking at dropping the medical requirement for private pilots who only fly for personal use. “They’re looking at making it the same as getting a driver’s license in the state,” he said. “I mean, if you have a history of seizures, or you pass out, or have high blood pressure, that’s a disqualifier. Every time you fly, you’re self-certifying. Technically, if I know I’ve got a known medical condition, I shouldn’t fly, and most pilots won’t. I’m not on my game. That’s the thing with the FAA medical.”
Carlton said the Balloon Federation is in the midst of working with the FAA to develop a safety accreditation program that would include a set of standards for professional pilots that they would have to meet. “That information would be shared with the public so they can make good choices on who to go up with for a ride,” he said.
Surprisingly, the FAA does not require a balloon pilot to carry insurance, which even Carlton acknowledges is surprising. However, all of the local metro Detroit operators are insured by one of three major balloon insurance operators, which they are able to obtain through the Balloon Federation.
“The FAA doesn’t require a pilot to carry insurance. It’s not part of their deal, and they don’t do that for any kind of aviation. It’s a horrible idea,” Carlton said. “We have our Professional Ride Operations Division, and to be a part of it, your insurance has to be verified every year. You have to show that you have have it. We encourage passengers to ask to see it. And any pilot that refuses to show you – just don’t go. That’s going to be the first of their problems. Insurance isn’t unaffordable. Everybody should have it, and you’re well within your right to ask for it. That’s a good indicator of quality.”
Carlton also said a passenger can ask to see that the balloon has had regular inspections in the proper time frame. “If they don’t show it to you, it would indicate a problem,” he noted.
Lorenz of Westwind Balloon, likens the ability of a pilot to obtain a license and their experience level with being able to get and drive with a driver’s license – to drive a car a driver’s license is needed, and while there are certain minimum standards that are required, to become a good driver, continued practice is what it takes.
“We know of nobody in this area who hasn’t taken an oral exam, a written exam and a flight test with a FAA-certified examiner to certify their competency,” he said, as well as anyone who has worked to become a commercial pilot.
“The fact is, there are 30 airplane accidents every week, from fighter planes to commercial planes to small planes. Yet, whenever there’s a hot air balloon accident, they show a smoldering balloon from eight years ago,” said Dennis Kollin, owner of Sky Adventures in Oxford.
“Whether it’s a lesson or a pleasure flight in a balloon, you have to make careful decision before you even get in. You have to evaluate all the risks, and most of the guys and gals flying are doing that,” said Carlton.
Kollin, who first started flying a hot air balloon in 1972, said he has a healthy fear of ballooning. “Every time I go up. Which means, if the conditions of the day are not right, I don’t go up.”