Are Hot Air Balloons Safe?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Hot air balloons operate on the very basic scientific principle that hot air rises. Many people practice ballooning as a sport, and some people also enjoy it as a relaxing recreational activity. Generally speaking, hot air balloons are quite safe, and certainly more safe than some forms of aviation.

Hot air balloons rides are considered very safe today.
Hot air balloons rides are considered very safe today.

Before examining the safety of hot air balloons, it may help to understand how they work. Each balloon has a large bag called an envelope, attached to a sturdy gondola or wicker basket. In order to get enough lift, the air in the bag is heated with the assistance of a flame. As the air heats up, the balloon rises. The pilot can control the ascent by opening a valve to let air off, causing the balloon to drop again. When the flight is over, the pilot slowly lets out enough air to allow the balloon to drop to the ground.

Hot air balloons travel with the wind, similar to kites and hang gliders.
Hot air balloons travel with the wind, similar to kites and hang gliders.

Like hang gliders and kites, hot air balloons travel with the wind. Pilots have some control over their direction through their altitude, as different air currents run in different directions. Typically, pilots choose the early morning hours to fly, since wind speeds are still low. Low wind speeds make riding in hot air balloons much safer, and the flights are more enjoyable, since the balloon gently drifts, rather than being buffeted along.

People who are afraid of heights might want to avoid hot air balloons.
People who are afraid of heights might want to avoid hot air balloons.

The weather is the most important concern in hot air balloon safety. High winds and extreme weather such as sleet and snow are potentially very dangerous. An experienced pilot will not fly in these conditions. Good pilots also always check their equipment before beginning a flight, and they often carry backup tanks of fuel and other redundant equipment for safety.

Generally, pilots who want to fly hot air balloons must get a pilot's license. This requirement varies in different nations, but in many countries there are specific courses and examinations which pilots must take to handle these types of aircraft. A private license allows a pilot to fly with a few friends, while a commercial license permits a pilot to fly larger balloons and receive financial compensation for his or her time.

Balloon rides can be great fun, and they are very safe as long as passengers follow the directions of the pilot. People who experience vertigo or fear of heights may want to skip the experience, however.

A ride in a hot air balloon is not suitable for people who suffer from vertigo.
A ride in a hot air balloon is not suitable for people who suffer from vertigo.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I'm a university student in Greece, and I was thinking of going on a hot air balloon ride. There is an event here that occurs about three times a year, and it's very cheap since it's not a balloon journey but just an ascent and descent (15' in total, max; instructions+flight to 30-50 meters and landing included), balloon tied to the ground via rope). It can fly up to 50 metres the most! Do you think it could be dangerous?

Furthermore, as a person I'm afraid of heights when I feel insecure, so is the view from above frightening? For instance, I'm not afraid of sitting by the window on a plane, but I get almost sick when at the edge of a multistory building.

And, if by any chance, one feels like fainting, is there enough room to at least crouch, sit etc? I'm going to fly on a five-person hot air balloon with an experienced pilot.

Thanks for your insights in advance! --JW


Seatbelts are not required for passengers in hot-air balloons. However, recent regulations in Europe require the pilot to use a safety harness: a belt that allows him movement but prevents him from being jettisoned from the basket on impact.

The pilot in a large balloon is often the person who is most at risk as he/she is busy handling the burners, pulling on ropes etc., and has no hands left to hold on properly. Passengers in larger balloons are relatively safe in separate compartments with sidewall cushioning and lots of handles, and are briefed to have their back turned in the direction of flight so they end up lying on their backs (and on the cushioning) if the basket topples on its side and drags during a high-wind landing.

However, some ride operators in places like the Masai Mara wilderness park in Africa now use baskets with lightweight hardfoam seats and safety belts for the passengers, as they overwhelmingly fly elderly people who may have difficulty remaining upright during the whole flight and holding on properly during landing, which in those areas is almost always with wind and thus a drag landing. They also have hardwood runners fixed to the long sides of their baskets to facilitate dragging without damaging the wickerwork.

Post 4 is just total nonsense. I'm a ballooning instructor with over 25 years and over 1,000 hours of experience.


Which type of material was used in pilot balloon and its max temperature resistance level?


As a balloon pilot, from the mid seventies, till now, I have never seen nor used a seatbelt. the gentleman's hyperbole about balloons shows a basic lack of knowledge. Go flying, you'll be safer than walking down the street in the bad part of town. dgbw


Why yes, seat belts are in fact very much required for a hot air balloon to take flight under the proper legal conditions set by important legislation in the late 1980's.

This is because when the balloon sometimes loses control or tears, it's better to be securely strapped in (almost no possible movement) so that when the bone crushing crash occurs, the paramedics will be easily able to recover the bodies or, in case of survivors, be able to keep their spines in place in case of catastrophic injury to the back region. Pleasant flight!


Are seat belts required in hot air balloons?

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