Stay safe while soaring up, up and away
A sunset balloon ride over Napa Valley with your love or best pal by your side doesn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if you spend the entire trip white-knuckling the basket or picturing disaster striking, you probably won't want to take the trip again. Relax and enjoy: hot air ballooning is a relatively safe activity. Accidents happen, but they're really rare.
Stats on balloon safety
Since the National Transportation Safety Board began compiling data in the mid-1960s, more than 100 people have died in accidents involving hot air balloons. Of those accidents, few involved passengers. Some crashes happened to non-certified pilots who shouldn't have been flying. Others were caused by passengers who weren't following safety procedures or involved freak accidents happening to ground crew.
Accidents involving groups of passengers are extremely rare. A 2016 Texas crash that killed 16 people was the first major hot air ballooning accident since a 1994 Colorado crash.
Injuries are more common, although still rare. A study done of all U.S. balloon crashes between 2000 and 2011 found that 78 accidents had occurred during that period, causing a total of 91 injuries and five fatalities, with most accidents happening during landing.
All of that might sound scary. Yet, even though there are no exact stats available, hundreds of balloon festivals are held around the world each year, and the U.S. alone has an estimated 5,000 balloon pilots. So, when you consider the huge number of people who fly in hot air balloons every day, it's clearly a very safe activity overall.
That's because hot air balloons are fairly simple. A burner heats the air inside the balloon, making it rise. When it's time to land, the pilot opens a valve in the top of the balloon to let some hot air escape. Balloons require few parts and few instruments to work, which means there aren't many ways things can go wrong.
Staying safe in a balloon
Booking a hot air balloon trip isn't the best place to stretch your travel budget. Be wary of companies offering prices far below the area average. Before booking, check review sites for comments from past customers. Were the pilots attentive and responsive to questions? Was the ride smooth and enjoyable? Do they cancel or postpone flights during inclement weather? (The answer should be yes.) Ideally, you'll be able to look back through years of reviews to get a sense of the company's history.
You want a company that has a proven track record of operating safely, and you shouldn't be afraid to ask questions. A reputable operator should have a clean safety record and be happy to talk about it. Ask to see the pilot's license and a copy of the company's insurance policy before taking a flight.
Unless you're taking a quick trip up in a balloon that's tethered to the ground, expect to be up in the air for an hour or more. Most balloons lack seats, so take a ride only if you can comfortably stand for that long. Landings can be bumpy, so you may not want to ride if you have physical ailments that would make that uncomfortable. That bumpiness is also why many balloon companies won't allow pregnant women to fly. It can be cold up there, so wear long pants and wear or bring a long-sleeved top.
During the ride itself, the best way to stay safe is to carefully listen to and follow all directions from your pilot. If you've chosen a good company, the pilot should know exactly what to do to keep you safe from liftoff to landing.