If you know not what harbor you seek, any wind is the right wind...
--Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 3AD-65AD)
Can you remember being lifted up when you were a child? You know, lifted high over someone’s head. It was thrilling, but at the very same time you felt totally secure. You were secure because you understood who was holding you.
That same feeling sweeps over the pilot of a balloon. Security in the air comes from the great training received and the continuing aeronautical education to which pilots are committed. Security also comes from understanding and respecting the equipment, and its limitations, and developing skills and recognizing and respecting personal limitations.
The International Aeronauts League invites you to learn more about flying a balloon. The United States Federal Aviation Administration has published a book titled, Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-11). While it is somewhat limited by FAA legal requirements, this book is a primer on what it takes to fly a hot air balloon and what it takes to become a pilot. The handbook can be ordered as a bound book from the FAA for about $20, it can also be downloaded for free right here:
Do not let the title of this section fool you. While learning to fly a balloon is serious business and takes real work, it is a great deal of fun and the road there may surprise you. The mechanics of a balloon are simple and the theory behind balloon flight is very simple. Here are some things that you might find interesting…
Learning to fly a balloon is fairly inexpensive – possibly less than $3,500
Pilots are certificated not licensed – things like software are licensed
Earning a private pilot balloon certificate does not have to take years – often it can be completed in fewer than 30 days
Balloon pilots do not need an FAA Medical Examination – you self-certify your good health
A used hot air balloon system is affordable – airworthy systems can be found for $5,000
Pilots exercise control over the direction of their balloons – through an assessment of winds at different altitudes
An airplane pilot certificate is not a prerequisite to earning a balloon certificate
To earn a pilot’s certificate you will train with a Commercial Pilot. A Commercial Pilot can be an independent instructor or might be associated with an FAA approved balloon flight school (FAR Part 141). Learning with an independent instructor can be done through companies offering scenic balloon rides, through balloon clubs, or through private individuals. This approach can be rich as some instructors have far more pilot time and varied experiences than the regulations call for. On the other hand, this approach usually takes longer as the instructor must fit you in with other work like the scenic balloon rides. Learning at a Part 141 School is probably the fastest approach to becoming a pilot. Here, all of the ground and air training can be accomplished over a block of time… sometimes in several weeks.
You are likely wondering how you should be trained. First download or purchase the Balloon Flying Handbook and read it carefully. This will provide perspective on what it takes to earn your certificate. For instance, it is likely that you will be training early in the morning. The best times to fly a balloon are just after sunrise and just before sunset. You will want to consider where your instructor is located. Is the instructor local or will you be driving several hours for each lesson? By the way, it is unlikely you will ever be able to rent a balloon like you can with an airplane; however, during training you will likely have use of your instructor's or school's balloon or you can train in your own balloon.
If you want to learn at a leisurely pace, then signing up with a ride operator or through a balloon club might be a good choice. Here you may spend time as a member of the instructor’s balloon crew learning to set up and take down the balloon system, “chasing” the pilot to the landing area to help with the landing and packing the balloon into its trailer or truck. Some clubs and ride operators will let you trade your crew time for flying lessons in a sweat-equity approach to earning your certificate. A faster and more intense experience is attendance at a Part 141 School. Many people travel to the school and stay at a nearby hotel or motel. Ground training usually takes place in the afternoons after early morning flight training. If weather permits and the student is up to it, training might take place every day until the instructor determines that the student is ready to take the practical test (check-ride) with an FAA examiner. The nice thing about this approach is that Part 141 School students do not need as many hours of flight and instruction time as provided under FAR Part 61, because approved schools have an approved curriculum and are rigorously and regularly inspected by the FAA.
You may also want to consider a supplemental ground training course. Ground training is extremely important as it prepares you for the practical flight experience. Excellent ground training is necessary in order to be a safe and knowledgeable pilot. It also prepares you for the FAA Knowledge Test by thoroughly covering Meteorology, Regulations, Navigation, Flight Physiology, Balloon Operations, Safety and Weather Briefings. One organization that offers balloon ground training throughout the year and in locations all over the US is the Liberty Balloon School. They have trained 1,100 balloon pilots in twenty years of operation. Not just geared to the new student, many skilled pilots use their course as a refresher at various times in their flying careers.
Be sure to ask questions before you choose an instructor. You can ask questions here on our Forum. In addition, you can check with your local Better Business Bureau to inquire about any complaints that might exist regarding your instructor, scenic balloon ride operation or flight school. In addition, join a club in your area and talk to experienced pilots about your plans.
One source of information regarding balloon clubs and other matters of vital interest to balloonists is the Balloon Federation of America (BFA). This organization represents the interests of balloon pilots and owners. The BFA publishes a journal, Ballooning and a newsletter, Skylines. These publications contain, among other things, advertisements for companies which offer pilot instruction. In addition, their website lists Balloon Clubs located throughout the USA and many foreign countries.
Two valuable books for anyone planning to fly a balloon were written by veteran pilots and Part 141 School operators Brent Stockwell and Christine Kalakuka. How to Fly a Balloon and Balloon Ground School Home Study Manual (with Mary Grady) are probably the best textbooks written for student pilots. These books offer thorough preparation for both FAA Knowledge Exams: Private Pilot - Balloon, Hot Air (PBH) and Commercial Pilot (CBH). The tests must be completed by every applicant for a balloon certificate, prior to taking the Practical Test. In addition, they are also the texts used by most private and commercial pilot candidates during flight training. These books can be obtained from Balloon Publishing.
For those interested in balloon competition, then the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) should be consulted. Their website, contains in-depth articles and a great deal of technical information about sport ballooning, international rules, judging, and equipment specifications.
For young people with plans and dreams of flying, there is a great organization dedicated to future aviators. International Young Aeronauts publishes a newsletter called Aviation Adventures. The group offers great advice, activities and experiences… Its unique pen-pal program encourages global friendship and understanding.
The Regulatory Support Division of the Federal Aviation Administration maintains an extensive site, that includes most of the forms, regulations and qualifications for all aviation related certificates. It also includes a great deal of statistical information regarding active pilots and knowledge exam success rates. The National Transportation Safety Board publishes a searchable database of all aircraft accidents and their causes. However, be cautioned that not many NTSB inspectors have balloon experience and their conclusions are often shallow or wrong.
So, the simple steps involved in becoming a balloonist are:
1. Study for the FAA Knowledge Tests
2. Locate an instructor - a commercial pilot or Part 141 School
3. Obtain a Student Pilot Certificate from the local FSDO, or balloon pilot examiner
4. Complete ground school training
5. Obtain sign-off allowing application for the pertinent FAA Knowledge Test
6. Pass FAA Knowledge Test for Private Pilot - Balloon, Hot Air (PBH) or the Commercial test if you have at least a Private FAA powered aircraft certificate
7. Complete required flight training
8. Instructor signs off for FAA Practical Test(Checkride)
9. Pass Practical Test with FAA Examiner
10. Upon passing, immediately receive Pilot Certificate
The next section summarizes the work needed to obtain an FAA Student Pilot, Private Pilot and Commercial Pilot Certificate.
Summary of 14 CFR (Federal Aviation Regulation)
Part 61 - Certification: Pilots and Flight Instructors
SUBPART C - STUDENT PILOTS
1. A student must be at least 14 years of age.
2. He must be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language.
3. No medical certificate is required.
4. Student pilot certificates may be issued by FAA inspectors or designated pilot examiners.
5. Student pilots may solo after demonstrating to their instructor by passing a written exam that they are familiar with Part 91 and 61 of the 14 CFR (Federal Aviation Regulations), airspace where the solo will take place, balloon flight characteristics and limitations, and are proficient in balloon operations of pre-flight preparation, operation of controls, lift-off and climb, descent and landing, and emergency situations.
6. A student pilot may not carry passengers or fly a balloon for hire.
SUBPART D - PRIVATE PILOTS
1. To be eligible for a free balloon private pilot's certificate, a person must be at least 16 years of age.
2. Read, speak, write and understand the English language.
3. No medical certificate required.
4. The applicant must pass a written test on such items as:
14 CFR (Federal Aviation Regulations) covering pilot privileges, limitations, and flight procedures,
Use of navigation charts,
Recognition of weather conditions and use of weather reports,
Operating procedures with hot air balloons.
5. The applicant must have received instruction on the following pilot operations:
Ground handling and inflation,
Takeoff and ascents,
Descents and landings,
6. Flight experience must include at least 10 hours in free balloons, which must include 6 flights under the supervision of an instructor. These flights must include at least the following: two training flights of at least one hour long within 60 days of the scheduled check ride, one ascent to 2,000 feet above takeoff point, and one solo flight (these requirements are for hot air balloons; requirements for gas balloons are slightly different).
SUBPART E - COMMERCIAL PILOTS
1. The age requirement for a commercial pilot certificate is 18 years.
2. Read, speak, write and understand the English language.
3. No medical certificate required.
4. The applicant must pass a more advanced written test on the subject matter listed in 61.125, additional operating procedures relating to commercial operations, and those duties required of a flight instructor.
5. Advanced training must be received from an authorized instructor covering those items listed in 61.127 (b)(8).
6. The applicant for a commercial certificate must have at least 35 hours of flight time as a pilot, of which 20 hours must be in balloons (remaining 15 hours may be in other aircraft). Flight time must include 10 hours in free balloons, 10 flights under the supervision of an instructor, 2 solo flights, 2 flights of at least one hour duration, two training flights within 60 days of the scheduled check ride and one flight to 3,000 feet above the take-off point.
7. The holder of a commercial pilot's certificate may operate a balloon for hire and may give flight instruction.
This article is not exhaustive and it has not covered international pilot qualifications or specializations like gas ballooning and blimps. More on these subjects can be found by exploring the associations and websites discussed in this article:
Balloon Federation of America
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale
International Young Aeronauts
Liberty Balloon School
Regulatory Support Division of the Federal Aviation Administration
National Transportation Safety Board
This website provides information and general advice about aviation. Regulations and procedures change frequently, and they can be interpreted differently by different people. For specific advice geared to your specific situation, consult an expert. No website, book, software or other published material is a substitute for personalized advise from a knowledgeable individual certificated or licensed to teach aviation, conduct repairs and maintenance, or practice law in your local city, state or country.