According to balloon insurance carriers, the two major causes of accidents
are high-wind landings and powerline contacts. Also at issue is handling
explosive propane gas, and, at balloon festivals, watching for traffic.
In an ideal high-wind landing, the pilot chooses the largest suitable
field, and stabilizes the balloon's altitude a foot or so above the
surface, then pulls the deflation line, allowing hot air to escape the
envelope. The basket hits the ground, tips over, and drags until the
envelope is deflated. The pilot should have briefed the passengers to
hang on, flex their knees at impact, and stay inside the basket until
instructed by the pilot that it's ok to get out.
Large transmission lines, with their tall support structures, cleared
rights of way, and multiple phases, are easy to spot from a balloon.
More difficult are the smaller transmission and distribution lines running
along roadways and across fields. Since the prevailing wind direction
in the northern hemisphere is from the west, and because balloons fly
shortly after sunrise, pilots often look into the sun, and those thin
steel lines can be very hard to see. So balloonists look for support
structures, and always suspect lines along roads. If the balloon does
contact powerlines, everyone on the ground must stay well clear of the
basket until the electric company shuts off the flow.
In your house, low pressure vapor runs your water heater, kitchen stove,
or clothes dryer. Balloon burners use liquid propane, vaporized and
highly pressurized as it travels through the burner's coils. Balloonists
check every fitting for potential leakage, by sniffing for the odor
of ethyl mercaptan added to commercial propane, and by listening for
that telltale hiss.
The propane used to fire the burner, has a boiling temperature of -44F,
so pilots wear protective leather or Nomex gloves when handling the
fuel system, from the time they connect the hoses, through the flight,
until they disassemble the system, and refuel. Even a slight exposure
to the gas can result in severe freeze burns. The trick is to find gloves
that fit well enough to allow full use of your fingers for flight operations,
but thick enough to provide protection. This can be especially difficult
if you have small hands, and, for women pilots, the glove hunt is a
background project of every shopping trip.
According to FAR Part 91, balloons have the right of way over any other
aircraft save an aircraft in distress. But what about in other balloon
traffic? Balloons fly much closer to each other than airplanes, gliders
or helicopters, sometimes even touching envelopes. Right of way always
belongs to the balloon below, simply because its pilot cannot see balloons
above. In traffic, balloonists use extra caution and a much lower rate
of climb and descent, to give each other time to respond. At festivals,
pilots listen carefully for burner noise or conversation above them
and watch envelope shadows on the ground. If crossing over another balloon,
it's a good idea to either call down to the pilot below or to use a
short blast from a whistle or air horn to alert the him of your location.
After you've crossed over, give the all-clear.