Friday, June 27, 2014

Federal Aviation Administration: Hot Air Balloon Pilot Did Not Violate Rules

The unexpected landing of a hot-air balloon in a Huntley neighborhood earlier this week has prompted local authorities to question whether balloon pilots are allowed to land wherever they please.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory stopped short of saying pilots can land anywhere. She said a balloon can take off and land as long as it is in a safe area where there is enough room for maneuvering.

That doesn't mean pilots can put down their balloons in the middle of intersections unless necessitated by an emergency.

"The balloons are subject to the same regulations as basically all flight, so the concern is you do not want to fly carelessly or recklessly," Cory said.

Pilots also have to consider what is on the ground around where they choose to land.

"The rule is that you operate safely," Cory said.

Cory added, local police and the FAA have different jurisdictions, and the agency only regulates safety on flight.

In the Huntley case, the pilot reported to FAA officials that winds were picking up and that he needed to land the craft, Cory said.

"We do not see a regulatory violation here," Cory said.

The balloon took off Tuesday morning from Sky Soaring Airport near Hampshire carrying four people. It landed at 7:27 a.m. in the middle of an intersection at Songbird Lane and Windy Prairie Drive in Huntley's Sun City senior living community. Authorities said heavy winds began to blow the craft near high-tension power lines near Interstate 90.

Chad Morin, 37, owner of Nostalgia Ballooning, later said it wasn't an emergency and that he intended to land the balloon there because it was a wide intersection.

That irked Huntley Police Chief John Perkins who said he would consider charges against Morin for alarming neighbors and emergency responders.

"That is not a normal place for a balloon to land," Perkins said.

A balloon can land where appropriate during an emergency landing and the pilot would not face any penalties.

However, local authorities are perfectly within their rights to impose penalties on pilots who cause a disturbance without reason, Cory said.

Perkins said Thursday he would not pursue issuing a citation against Morin.

Some towns, such as Crystal Lake, have ordinances prohibiting hot-air balloons from landing anywhere other than designated landing sites or airports unless necessitated by an emergency.

"We don't want them landing willy-nilly in our town," Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black said. "There's definitely a fire hazard associated with hot-air balloons."

Black said city officials have discretion to determine what constitutes an emergency.

"It's not based on the pilot's state of emergency, (such as) if he has to go to the restroom," he said. "There has to be some medical emergency with either himself or a passenger, or some type of operational emergency. Obviously, we would have to take each scenario or situation as it came."

Penalties could range from a citation to criminal charges for reckless or disorderly conduct where warranted, he added.

"Obviously we understand that it could be fun for people to ride (a balloon). We have to weigh someone's fun with the safety of the citizens in the community," Black said.

With ballooning growing in popularity in the suburbs -- two balloon companies now operate out of airports in the Hampshire area and Lake in the Hills -- more towns might seek to impose restrictions.

Perkins said he will be asking village officials to consider an ordinance similar to Crystal Lake's banning balloon landings except in emergencies.

"We have two companies that run these hot-air balloons pretty close to our borders," he said. "Depending on which way the wind is blowing, we're probably going to have more balloons in the air (over Huntley)."

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