Is Hot-Air Ballooning Safe?
I saw the video of that awful hot-air balloon crash in Egypt. I’m going on a trip to Switzerland soon and am thinking of taking a hot-air balloon ride while I’m there. How safe are they?
The accident you’re referring to, in which 19 people were killed after their balloon caught on fire, shot high into the air, and plummeted 1,000 feet to the ground, was indeed awful. But it was also extremely unusual: ballooning is an exceedingly safe activity, not to mention an amazingly peaceful and fun way to explore the countryside of some far-off place.
If you’re headed to Switzerland, the best ballooning destination is Chateau-d’Oex in the Alps. Every January, this French-speaking town hosts the weeklong annual International Hot-Air Balloon Festival, which attracts hundreds of balloonists from around the world.
I went ballooning there once, and I had confidence in my pilots because I checked to make sure they were licensed by the Swiss federal office of civil aviation, Switzerland’s equivalent to the FAA. But the same standards don’t apply everywhere. In developed countries, you can generally expect that hot-air balloons and their pilots are held to rigorous standards. In developing countries, not so much. Just as you would thoroughly investigate a dive operator in a far-flung place, you should ask balloon outfitters about their equipment, insurance, and experience.
Luckily, you’re pretty safe wherever you go, given the straightforward, elegant science of hot-air ballooning. If you run out of gas, or if there’s a hole in the balloon, you’re basically going to sink slowly back to the ground, not drop like a rock. The fire and resulting explosion on the balloon in Egypt was started, it appears, when a cable got tangled during landing, disconnecting a gas line and sparking a fire. Even if you make ballooning a habit, you’re not likely to see that kind of trouble.