Two final reports - Commercial hot air balloon pilots need to buckle up

18 May 2023

TAIC has published two related final reports about hot air balloon hard landings that involved ejection of people on board during landing:

  • AO-2021-001 Kavanagh Balloons E-260 ZK-FBK, Hard landing and ejection of occupants Wakatipu Basin, near Arrowtown 9 July 2021 

  • AO-2022-001 Ultramagic Balloons N-250 ZK-MET, Pilot ejection from basket on landing, Lyndhurst, near Methven 1 January 2022


What happened, why: AO-2021-001 ZK-FBK near Arrowtown 

  • ZK-FBK was on a commercial scenic flight with the pilot and ten passengers on board. 

  • The balloon approached to land in a paddock. It was travelling fast on a quickening wind but in the final few seconds of flight, wind speed decreased and the balloon basket descended and caught the top lip of a gully. It hit hard and bounced and slid a further 150 metres across a paddock. The pilot and two passengers were ejected and sustained serious injuries. The eight passengers who stayed in the balloon basket were either not injured or sustained minor injuries.

  • The three people ejected were vulnerable to being thrown from the basket.

    • The pilot was standing, manipulating control ropes when the basket struck the gully lip, and was not wearing a restraint harness.

    • The passengers were unprepared for the landing -- not in the correct crouched landing position, not holding on to the rope handles as required. 


What happened, why: AO-2022-001 ZK-MET near Methven 

  • ZK-MET was on a commercial scenic flight with the pilot and seven passengers on board.

  • The balloon approached to land in a paddock, the basket contacted the ground, bounced and tipped over on its second contact, and came to rest about 35 metres from initial ground contact. The pilot had been ejected from the basket, but all passengers remained uninjured in their braced positions until after the balloon deflated.

  • The pilot was vulnerable to being thrown from the basket because they were not wearing the installed pilot restraint harness.

    • The pilot was ejected during the first bounce, fell under the basket, was dragged across the field with a balloon control rope line caught around the neck, and suffered serious injuries. 

    • The operator’s procedures required the pilot to wear a pilot restraint harness; however, Civil Aviation Rules specifically exempted balloon pilots from using pilot restraint harnesses during landing.

  • Passengers were well briefed. The pilot had briefed passengers before the flight, and again before landing. These briefings almost certainly helped prevent injuries to the passengers. 


Key safety points from the two reports

Ejection of people and things during landing affects control of the balloon because the pilots’ ability to control the balloon relies in part on the weight of the basket’s contents staying the same. If the pilot is ejected, an accident is virtually certain because the balloon is uncontrolled and passengers unattended.

To balloon pilots:

  • Wear pilot restraint harnesses for critical phases of flight such as landings. If they don't, they risk ejection from the basket.
  • Include an appropriate margin of safety when selecting landing points and follow checklists to ensure they attend to all safety-critical items.

To balloon owners and operators: 

  • Install pilot restraint harnesses if they are not already fitted in the balloon basket.
  • Ensure passenger safety briefings are clear, concise and make it easy for all passengers to prepare for unusual or emergency situations. 


Safety issue 

Current Civil Aviation Rules specifically exempt balloon pilots from having to wear harnesses during takeoff and landing. 

  • Why this is an issue: Even if a commercial hot air balloon pilot follows all applicable Civil Aviation Rules, everyone on board is at risk of injury - or worse - if the aircraft becomes pilotless at a safety-critical phase of the flight.
  • How to reduce the likelihood of similar accidents in future: Update the CA Rules to require wearing of pilot restraint harness during critical phases of flight.


TAIC recommendations:

  • In the final report for AO-2022-001, the Commission has issued Safety Recommendation 001/23 that the Secretary of Transport review and revise Civil Aviation Rules Part 91 to mandate the wearing of pilot restraint harnesses during critical phases of commercial balloon flights.

  • In March 2022, the Commission issued a similar Safety Recommendation 001/22 to the Civil Aviation Authority in its preliminary report for AO-2022-001 [.pdf 1.3Mb] .