Flying a balloon is unlike any other aircraft. Airplane, helicopters, gliders, blimps, etc. all have the ability to directly control where they are going. Balloons depend 100% on the wind to carry them along. You’re always going where the wind is taking you, regardless whether that is where you want to go or not. Piloting a balloon requires knowledge, skills, patience, and above all else, the ability to roll with plan E when A, B, C and D have all failed.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has two types of hot air balloon pilot certificates; private and commercial. Private pilots are allowed to fly “for fun” with family and friends. They cannot receive any compensation for flying, although passengers are allowed to pay costs to cover a pro-rata share of the flight. Commercial pilots must also have a medical certificate and they are able to carry passengers that are paying for the flight. The FAA has different standards for private and commercial pilots. This page focuses on the process to become a private pilot.
The basic steps required to get your private pilot’s license are:
- Obtain a student pilot certificate. This is free and easy to do. Your instructor can help you through the process. This only needs to be done before you solo.
- Written exam. The FAA requires you to take a written exam covering various topics such as weather, rules & regulations, balloon systems, airspace, etc. This actually a computer based test taken at a test facility approved by the FAA. This can be done at any time, prior to your practical test.
- Start flying. The FAA requires that a private pilot have at least 10 hours of flight training that occurs over at least 6 flights. Most private pilots will have at least 10-15 flights before becoming proficient enough to take the required practical test to earn their license.
- Solo flight. Once you’re proficient at flying the balloon without additional coaching from your instruction, you will fly the balloon by yourself (solo) at least once. You may fly solo many more times; but the FAA requires at least once for a private pilot.
- Practical test. The “final test” of your training is to take a practical test, commonly referred to as a “check ride”. The check ride is taken either with the FAA, or more often a specific person delegated by the FAA to administer the test. The test consists of an oral portion where you’re quizzed on the material you’ve learned (rules & regulations, weather, decision making, airspace, etc.) and a flight portion where you demonstrate various maneuvers the FAA requires.
- You’re done! Once the practical test is over, you are able to either fly by yourself or take friends/family along. The only limitation is you cannot receive compensation for flying until you’ve obtained your commercial pilot’s license – which requires additional written tests, instruction, and another practical test.
The biggest hurdle perspective pilots have is finding a balloon they can fly. There are not many companies that rent hot air balloons to people learning to fly. There are some options for renting personally owned balloons. Costs for renting a balloon can vary, but $350 per one hour flight is a good ballpark. The FAA requires 10 flight hours to get your pilot certificate. A good budgeting figure for renting a balloon and getting your pilot certificate would be $4,000. The cost of purchasing a balloon varies greatly depending on whether you purchase new (which isn’t very common for the beginner), how old of a balloon your purchase, whether it comes with a trailer, whether you already have a vehicle capable of towing, etc. You may find “deals” on older balloon systems for $10,000 while a completely new system could easily cost $50,000.