Guest editorial: Balloons overhead are no cause for alarm
September 15, 2015
Don’t be alarmed if you hear an unfamiliar whoosh sound coming from the sky on mornings of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 18-20. It will probably be the sound of a hot air balloon associated with the Autumn Aloft hot air balloon event flying overhead.
In the 80s and 90s, balloons commonly graced the skies of Park City. It was not uncommon to see a balloon landing on a neighborhood street to deflate or exchange passengers. A low flying balloon was not a cause of concern for the residents. It was a part of morning life. As Park City grew, landing sites became fewer and the balloons started flying out in the county. For those who are unfamiliar with the operations of hot air balloons, I’d like to explain some of their habits so you won’t be alarmed if one happens to land near your home.
A common misconception about hot air balloons is that the pilot has little or no control over the aircraft. This could not be further from the truth. Even a reasonably skilled balloon pilot can easily control the altitude of his/her balloon within 6" of a desired height. Balloons travel very slowly. If the winds are fast, we cancel the flight and stay on the ground. Balloon pilots use different wind current directions for "steering". In the Park City bowl, wind direction changes as diverse as 180 degrees can occur within 200 feet (vertically) of each other near ground level. (there is less wind direction diversity the higher you go) This is why you will often see balloons traveling at a low level. They are trying to fly to an open area (for possible landing) and that is the only wind available to get them there. While a cluster of airborne balloons in an environment like Park City may look like the definition of chaos, each pilot is actually trying to get somewhere and is focused on doing so.
Another scenario that may appear alarming is when a balloon is approaching a landing site. The pilot will intentionally bring the balloon within a few feet above the highest obstacle before the intended landing area. This technique virtually eliminates any collision risk on final approach as the balloon is already very near the ground and has little chance of veering away from the selected landing spot.
Balloon pilots are all required to hold an FAA Balloon Pilot Certificate (license). The maneuvers mentioned above and many more are part of the training and competency required to operate a hot air balloon and obtain a license and carry passengers. Pilots invited to Autumn Aloft are selected based on their superior skills and experience.
I hope you enjoy the balloon "show" that results from all the pilots flying to their respective goals. If you happen to see a balloon land near your home, please don’t be alarmed. Take your children over to the balloon to get a better look and talk with the pilot. Balloon pilots love their craft and would like nothing more than to share it with you.
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