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How Hot Air Balloons Coexist in Commercial Airspace

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Vilnius, Lithuania, is apparently the only capital in Europe to allow hot air balloons to float in its airspace. I had the chance to speak with a local hot air balloon pilot about the ins and outs of the industry and, coming from a commercial aviation background, I had the chance to ask how balloons co-exist with airplanes commercial flying nearby.

Some of this information may be specific to Vilnius and Lithuania.

A highly regulated activity

Speaking with Tomas Olevsonas from Balloon.lt, I got a glimpse into the world of hot air balloon flights and how these airships co-exist with nearby Vilnius airport. Indeed, when it comes to the Lithuanian capital, hot air balloons take off just seven kilometers away. And being an industry that presumably attracts a lot of tourists (and tourism dollars), ensuring a smooth relationship with commercial aircraft flights is a necessity – especially for the safety of everyone in the air. Let’s take a look at some of the ways Vilnius (and Lithuania in general) regulates hot air balloon rides.

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Weather is the ultimate factor

Although local authorities or civil aviation regulators may allow hot air balloon flights, the weather will also be an important factor in determining a flight. If the winds are too strong, flights may not take place. Other severe weather conditions may also be the reason for aborting the takeoff.

Surprisingly, however, the weather might be “too good” for takeoff – especially in the case of Vilnius and other cities. Indeed, hot air balloons are allowed to take off from populated urban areas, but are prohibited from landing there. Thus, if the wind is light or non-existent on a particular day, flights may be canceled due to an inability to “fly out” of the city.

Vilnius sees regular hot air balloon flights throughout the year, just a few kilometers from the international airport. Photo: Chris Loh | single flight

Hot air balloons obtain take-off clearance and altitude guidance from the airport

With more than 800 hours of flying experience, Olevsonas notes that takeoff clearance comes from nearby Vilnius Airport. While his company and other operators may ask holders of flight reservations to show up at the launch point at a certain time, it is ultimately up to the airport to give the green light. Thus, take-off delays can result from flight delays or changes in wind direction.

The winds will determine the flight path of the balloons. It can even bring them over the airport – during times when passenger planes are taking off and landing. Surprisingly, commercial operations and hot air balloon flights can take place at the same time – but with a minimum safe distance between aircraft. This is made possible by altitude adjustments, which are in the hands of the pilots. Because this factor is easily controllable, the airport is able to instruct balloons to increase their altitude to ensure safe separation from approaching aircraft. This can give fantastic air-to-air views of commercial aircraft taking off and landing.

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Hot air balloons have registration numbers like other aircraft

As well as the creative or potentially obnoxious branding printed on the balloons, those able to get close will also see a registration number – just like commercial transport aircraft. This allows dispatchers to track the maintenance and flight hours of each balloon, ensuring that equipment is regularly inspected and serviced at regular intervals.

Indeed, inspections take place every 100 hours of service and all operators must have an official license from the Lithuanian Civil Aviation Administration to perform commercial flights. Comprehensive aviation insurance for passengers and third parties is also required.

Have you ever taken a hot air balloon ride? Let us know by leaving a comment!