Balloons – man’s first form for aviation – are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, just like planes, helicopters, gliders and blimps.
There are two kinds of balloons that require different ratings. The most common are hot-air balloons that burn propane to get airborne. The others are known as gas balloons, and can use hydrogen, ammonia or helium to ascend. Gas balloons are sealed like a child’s balloon, and have sandbags used in ballast. Gas ballooning is rare in the United States, so we’ll limit this column to obtaining a certificate for “free balloons with airborne heaters,” or hot-air balloons.
There are three types of certificates issued for balloonists: student, private and commercial. There are specific FAA requirements for each you can look up, but basically you need to be at least 14 years old for a student rating, 16 for a private and 18 for a commercial. You’ll need a minimum 10 hours of instruction for a private rating and 35 for your commercial rating, which will allow you to take passengers for hire, fly aerial advertising and instruct.
- ask around for an instructor
- fly with more than one instructor if possible
- find training in the area you will be flying in if possible
- fly with first-time passengers if possible
- be patient
- consider the cost
- expect to get your balloon certificate in the minimum amount of hours required
- think ballooning is a solo sport
- think you’ll get rich getting a commercial certificate and selling rides
- be afraid to buy a used balloon for your training
Find active balloonists in your area, call the FAA or the Balloon Federation of America to ask who does balloon pilot training in your area. Let them know you will be taking lessons and join the local balloon club if there is one.
Finding a balloonist who will offer training can be challenging in some parts of the country. If you see balloons flying regularly, follow one to its landing and ask the pilot who offers training in the area. You can call your regional FAA office for a list of examiners, or you can contact the Balloon Federation of America for some suggestions in your area.
Flying with different instructors will help you learn different ways pilots fly, inflate and pack up their balloons. And if your instructor is only available when he has room in his basket for you, or not busy flying paid passengers, you may have a longer wait. It is helpful, if possible, to fly with more than one instructor. Every pilot flies and packs up their balloons differently. It would be helpful during a lesson or two to fly with first-time passengers to see what their reactions and questions are, to see how the balloon handles with others on board and how it easily it may be to get you distracted.
Local pilots will know areas to stay away from and peculiarities of the region, as well as crop identification and sensitive landing areas. Work your best to find training in your area that you are planning on flying in so that you can get a sense of the specific flight conditions.
Try and fly with first-time passengers at least once during your training with your instructor. You will get a feel for how the balloon handles with others on board and get an understanding of their reactions and how they should be briefed for landings.
Ballooning is a fair-weather sport and is limited to early mornings or late afternoons when the winds are light. In some areas of the country, it could take weeks or months to get enough flying time in to qualify for a license.
How much will it cost? A typical balloon ride may be $200 or more, so it’s not unrealistic to expect to pay a few thousand dollars for your flight instruction. That would be significantly cheaper per hour if you own your own balloon. There are balloon flight schools, primarily in the southwest, that can get your flight training done within a couple of weeks. But realistically, it could take months or even a couple years to get the flight training necessary to go for a flight test. Weather in some parts of the country aren’t too conducive to flying various times of the year.
At least 10 hours is needed for a private rating and 35 hours for a commercial rating. But it usually ends up being more than that before a student is ready for their flight test. Be patient in getting your license. The more experience you have while getting your hours in, the better pilot you will be.
For every balloon in the air, you’ll find a dedicated crew that helps inflate, follow and pack up the balloon. Ballooning is a great opportunity to create a dedicated and experienced team to help you get off the ground and pack up when you're all done.
Some of the expenses of starting a ride business not only include a balloon, but an inflator fan, truck or trailer, insurance, annual inspections, champagne for the landowners, fuel for your vehicle and propane for the balloon, radios, ropes, etc. You’ll need many hours flying before you can get insurance for a large ride balloon.
Balloonists don’t always know where they will land, so look for a landing spot that is 1) safe, 2) won’t damage the crops or livestock or the balloon and 3) accessible. Local pilots would know about red zones, which are undesirable areas or unwelcoming landing spots. Being irresponsible will hurt the next balloonist who may try to land in that area.
If you do buy a used balloon, be sure it is inspected and checked over by someone who knows what they are doing. It isn’t uncommon to get a rip or burn a fabric panel when you are learning to fly.
Ballooning can be a beautiful way to see the world and meet new people. It may not be the cup of tea for folks who like to control where and when they do things – even when you take off you probably won’t know exactly where you will land. It can be dangerous if standard precautions aren’t followed and or if severe wind and weather conditions aren’t heeded. But with proper training, better understanding of your abilities, weather and flight area, ballooning can offer unique perspectives and memories that will last long after the champagne is opened.