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Up, Up and Away

By Lisa Brody
News Editor
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04/25/2017 - 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.

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