Your anniversary is coming up and you want to do something sweet for your partner. You can think of nothing more romantic than floating in a hot air balloon under a canopy of stars. You’re ready to book your hot air balloon ride right now, but before you do, you have to know something. Do hot air balloons fly at night?
No, hot air balloons will not fly at night because they’re legally not allowed to per Federal Aviation Administration or FAA rules. The FAA has a Visual Flight Rules chart that dictates that visibility when ballooning must be at least one mile out, which is not always possible when flying at night.
In this article, we’ll unpack the FAA ballooning flight rules, discuss what ballooning at night would really be like, and recommend some better times to fly instead. You can still create memorable moments in a hot air balloon even though you can’t fly after dusk. Keep reading to see how!
Why Hot Air Balloons Can’t Fly at Night
We’re sure we don’t need to introduce the FAA, which is the authority on aircraft of all kinds in the United States. Yes, that includes hot air balloons, as they’re technically aircraft. So what does the FAA say about hot air balloons flying at night?
Hot air balloons must have flight visibility of at least 1 to 3 statute miles at all times. One statute mile is the equivalent of 1,760 yards, which is 5,280 feet. Think about it for a moment. Can you see 5,280 feet in front of you in the dark?
Actually, it may be a bit further. This Preparedness Advice article says that in the dark, some people can see a candle from about 3 miles away. Live Science has theorized that the distance may be as far as 30 miles. Still, at that point, they say the candle would be a barely-there glimmer.
Since no one is trying to push the limits of human sight when ballooning, the FAA rules for how much visibility a hot air balloon pilot must have is 3 miles. Even though some balloon pilots might be able to see further out in the dark, it’s still too risky to fly.
This doesn’t just go for nighttime hot air balloon flights, by the way. On a foggy morning, the same rule would apply and your balloon would be grounded until the fog lifted.
The FAA’s VFR Flight Rules for Hot Air Balloons and Other Aircraft
The FAA’s Visual Flight Rules or VFR chart lays out all the rules nicely so nothing is up to interpretation. The FAA defines airspace types A through G in the chart. Trust us that your balloon pilot knows this information, but it’s good for riders to learn too so you have an idea of what to expect when hot air ballooning.
- Airspace Class A: Not applicable
- Airspace Class B: Must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be clear of clouds
- Airspace Class C: Must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be 1,000 feet above the clouds, 500 feet below the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds
- Airspace Class D: Must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be 1,000 feet above the clouds, 500 feet below the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds
- Airspace Class E:
- If you’re at 10,000 feet mean sea level or over, you must have flight visibility of 5 statute miles and be 1,000 feet above the clouds, 1,000 feet below the clouds, and 1 statute mile horizontal to the clouds
- If you’re at less than 10,000 feet mean sea level, you must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be 1,000 feet over the clouds, 500 feet under the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds
- Airspace Class G:
- If you’re at 1,200 feet (or under) above the surface (mean sea level altitude notwithstanding), then by day, you must have flight visibility of 1 statute mile and be clear of clouds, and by night, you must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be 1,000 feet over the clouds, 500 feet under the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds
- If you’re more than 1,200 feet over the surface but haven’t exceeded 10,000 feet of mean sea level, then by day, you must have flight visibility of 1 statute mile and be 1,000 feet over the clouds, 500 feet below the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds; by night, you must have flight visibility of 3 statute miles and be 1,000 feet above the clouds, 500 feet below the clouds, and 2,000 feet horizontal to the clouds
- If you’re more than 1,200 feet over the surface or you exceed 10,000 feet mean sea level, you must have flight visibility of 5 statute miles and be 1,000 feet over the clouds, 1,000 feet below the clouds, and 1 statute mile horizontal to the clouds
4 More Reasons Why Hot Air Ballooning at Night Is Inadvisable
Besides the fact that it’s a lot darker at night than it is during the daytime, here are four great reasons why hot air ballooning at night is not a safe idea in the slightest.
Very Hard to See Obstacles
Yes, our eyes can adjust to the darkness, but it can take 10 to 20 minutes for this to happen. By that point in your hot air balloon ride, you should have already been up in the air or getting ready to start the ascension.
Imagine that as you’re lifting off, your hot air balloon pilot can’t see that canopy of pines or a nearby weathervane. Even if they could see it, there’s evidence that our ability to judge distance at night is poorer than it is during the daylight hours. A hot air balloon is 55 feet wide on average, so even a slight miscalculation in distance can send the envelope careening into a pointy obstacle.
The envelope could be punctured. As we wrote about recently, if a hot air balloon has a hole in it, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. The balloon pilot can use the blast valve to send hot air to the envelope off and on until they could make a relatively safe landing.
Except in the dark, the balloon pilot might not even be aware that the envelope has a hole in it until they begin losing altitude.
Easy to Get Disoriented
The altimeter guides the balloon pilot when flying a hot air balloon, as up in the sky, everything can look the same. If a balloon pilot is lacking a frame of reference when flying in daylight, imagine how much more confusing it can be to commandeer a hot air balloon at night. It’s not like the balloon pilot can easily see the altimeter either unless it happens to be backlit. This can lead to disorientation and errors on the part of the balloon pilot that put all the passengers in danger.
Hard to Assess a Good Landing Spot
When the time comes to bring the hot air balloon down for a landing, the balloon pilot will contact the ground crew to select a spot. Let’s say that even when flying at night, the ground crew found a good place for your balloon to land. We already know that judging your distance is hard in the dark. If the balloon pilot makes a mistake, they could again crash into trees. What’s worse, they could get entangled in power lines.
These types of incidents have killed ballooners in the past, especially the ones involving live wires. So too have rough landings been deadly, as they are the primary cause of fatalities in ballooning.
What Are Some Better Times to Go Hot Air Ballooning Instead?
For safe hot air ballooning, you need a combination of low winds and high visibility. Try scheduling your hot air balloon ride for one of these times instead of at night.
An early morning hot air balloon flight will wake you up and rejuvenate you for the day ahead. You won’t have to worry about springtime or summer heat making you sweaty either since it’s usually cooler in the morning.
Since you want to crank up the romance a few notches, a late afternoon hot air balloon flight before dusk could be just what you’re looking for. Watching the sun as it begins to set and the sky turns beautiful colors will really set the mood!
Hot air balloons should never fly at night, so be wary if you find a ballooning company that says they’ll do it. Balloon pilots must be able to see 1 to 3 statute miles in front of them, which can be tricky to do in the dark. What’s worse is that the balloon pilot can become disoriented and have a hard time judging distance without any light to guide them.
Foggy conditions can also preclude you from flying, even in daylight. Your balloon pilot knows which weather is safe to fly in and which isn’t, so trust their judgment!
If you could choose the perfect time of year to go hot air ballooning, it would be in the spring or summer when being outdoors is pleasant. Yet knowing that hot air balloons use warm air to achieve elevation, you can’t help but wonder if cold or warm conditions make for better ballooning weather. Which is it?
You decide to book a hot air balloon ride and you’re told that you’ll have to fly early in the morning. You’d rather not, so you call another ballooning company and hear the same response. That’s kind of strange, you think. Why do hot air balloons fly in the morning?