Hot air balloons are one of the oldest forms of air travel. The first manned flight of a hot air balloon took place in 1783—more than a century before the first manned airplane flight!
While today’s hot air balloons have come a long way since those first flights, modern balloons have remained relatively unchanged since the 1950s. The balloon is made out of nylon or polyester material. A burner unit turns liquid propane into gas, which mixes with air and burns hot enough to generate lift. The wicker basket that passengers ride in is light and has proven durable.
Operation is simple. The burner heats the inside of the balloon. Once the air inside the balloon is hot enough, the balloon will lift. Navigation is left up to the wind—once in the air, pilots can only control altitude.
Decades of data shows that hot air balloons are one of the safest forms of air travel.
Most forms of air travel are considered safer than driving a car. Going by injury and fatality statistics alone, this is also true of hot air balloons. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), only 16 people have died while hot air ballooning between 2002 and 2016—about 1 person per year. Going back to 1964, the NTSB has only recorded a total of 775 hot air balloon accidents in the United States.
The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, regulates hot air balloon travel as they do all other aircraft. Hot air balloons must be inspected every 100 flight hours, and pilots must pass a flight test every two years to remain certified to fly.
On top of these regulations, modern hot air balloons are built with better materials than ever before. As mentioned, the balloon itself is made from nylon material. But not just any nylon—hot air balloons are made from a special tear-resistant fabric called ripstop nylon. Ripstop nylon became popular in the 1980s, after the introduction of synthetic fibers. The synthetic fibers make the nylon much stronger and resistant to rips. Ripstop nylon is safer than typical nylon and still lightweight, enabling easy takeoff and landing.
Most baskets are still woven wicker, but some baskets are now made from aluminum. Though it might seem like an outdated material, wicker is sturdy and flexible. Both qualities are key in flying hot air balloons, as a wicker basket can hold hundreds of pounds but also flex enough to maintain occupant balance in the air and when landing. Aluminum is no doubt stronger than wicker, but it’s still not as popular.
Bad weather can increase the likelihood of a hot air balloon accident.
Bad weather—heavy rain, wind, thunderstorms, snow, etc.—can pose a threat to the safety of hot air balloons. Pilots typically fly balloons 500 to 2,500 feet in the air. While pilots can control altitude by means of the burner, they cannot “steer” the balloon as an airplane pilot can. The hot air balloon is at the mercy of the winds. Calm, gentle winds make for a smooth ride. Most pilots will try to fly only when the wind is not a factor, and are trained to pay close attention to weather forecasts.
However, hot air balloon accidents can and do occur in bad weather. Most of the time, these bad-weather accidents are unforecasted and catch pilots by surprise. Here are three recent multi-injury accidents, all caused by bad weather:
- In August 2021, three hot air balloons crashed in Wyoming. All three balloons were operated by the same company and took off around the same time. The initial forecast called for calm winds, but pilots were met with gusty conditions after takeoff. As the hot air balloons came in for landing, the wind dragged the balloons across the ground for 300 feet. Hot air balloons generally drag along the ground when landing, but officials on scene called this event “excessive.” One passenger was airlifted to the hospital and several others were injured.
- In July 2016, sixteen people were killed in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history. The pilot was told that weather conditions were too dangerous to fly, and low clouds meant that visibility was poor. The hot air balloon struck a high-voltage power line and crashed, killing all aboard. Unfortunately, in this case the hot air balloon pilot was warned of bad weather conditions but still chose to take off.
- In March 2012, a pilot was killed after a thunderstorm sent his hot air balloon crashing into the ground. The thunderstorm was not forecast. The other five passengers, all skydivers, managed to jump from the hot air balloon and reach the ground safely.
Bad weather conditions can cause hot air balloons to crash. But, as we discussed, hot air balloon crashes and injuries are incredibly rare. The good news is that most pilots pay close attention to the weather and only fly when there are calm winds and no rain. Unexpected bad weather can happen, and may cause an accident, but this is very rare.
There is no denying that hot air ballooning is fun, and the statistics show it to be safe. If you want to fly in a hot air balloon, be sure to contact a reputable flying company with a track record of flying only in calm weather.