During the July 2012 Flight Training Facebook chat, Samer asked:
“Every once in awhile, I fly to a Class D airport (besides the one I’m based out of) and I’ve experienced sharing the sky with balloons, which is no problem, but is the tower always aware of their intentions? In other terms, do they have to report their position to the tower? If not, maybe I need to begin scanning the woodline below me for these piloted balloons.”
Our air traffic control specialist Aaron Pifer replied, “Class D airports ‘visually separate’ aircraft from other aircraft unless they have radar feeds. The intent is usually pretty basic: take off, climb to whatever altitude, and go where the wind tells them to. The balloon pilots usually have handhelds or have some sort of pre-coordinated plans with the tower via telephone.”
We happen to have a hot air balloon pilot based here at Frederick Municipal Airport (which is now in Class D airspace), and so I gave him a call to follow up on this question. Patrick Smith operates Tailwinds Over Frederick.
“We’re an aircraft, and we have to make contact with the tower just like a glider” or powered airplane, Patrick explained. “I call them before I inflate. I have to get a clearance before I take off. We stay in contact.”
As Aaron mentioned, Patrick uses a handheld transceiver to communicate with the tower. “If my altitude changes, I give them an ‘altitude and below.’ I give them a call when I land or when I’m starting to look for a landing spot, just to let them know they might lose sight of me.”
The Tailwinds balloon is a common sight at KFDK, and is just another interesting part of our mix of aircraft, which includes fixed- and rotary-wing, gliders, gyrocopters, and the occasional visit from the Goodyear, Outback, and MetLife blimps. Variety is the spice of life…and airports!—By Jill W. Tallman