Checkride! – Hot Air Balloon Instruction Series

The big day is set. You’ve got an appointment to get a checkride with the local hot air balloon examiner. You’ve been signed off by an hot air balloon instructor and have all of the experienced crew persons you know lined up to help. While the balloon training has been on and off for 2 years, you feel as prepared as you’ll ever be. What else can you do besides pray for flyable weather? Maybe a lot.

In view of the fact that hot air balloon instructors aren’t required to attend CFI refresher courses on a regular basis, they may not be aware of recent changes and let some details fall through the cracks. The bottom line in preparing for a checkride is to call your balloon examiner and discuss exactly what he expects in the way of paperwork and other details before you make the trip to the launch field.  I will attempt to cover the “must have” items and any other things which may be useful.

The first step is to insure that all of the hot air balloon training requirements have been met and logged appropriately in your personal balloon pilot log book. This includes endorsement(s) for solo and ground instruction. The hot air balloon flight instruction endorsements should follow each flight and must include the areas of operation listed in the respective FAR’s (Private 61.107 (b)(8), Commercial 61.127 (b)(8)). Many balloon pilot log books reflect the usual suspects ie. launch, level flight, ascents, descents, and landings. In order to eliminate the need for “interpretation” by the balloon examiner, it would be wise to use the items listed in area of Part 61 and include them all.

Terms such as preflight preparation, preflight procedures, postflight procedures don’t intuitively pop into the minds of most long time commercial hot air balloon pilots. Much time and hassle can often be avoided if you as a student make sure these terms are included in the flight instruction endorsement area of your hot air balloon log book. One of the most overlooked items in this area is “airport operations” as required for commercial hot air balloon flight training. An airport does not necessarily include a bunch of airplanes and a runway. It is defined as a place that is used for landing and takeoff of aircraft. For balloons, this would include the takeoff and landing fields and parameters for their use when flying a hot air balloon.

In addition to the balloon flight training requirements, there are aeronautical experience requirements that must be met before the hot air balloon checkride can take place. These include the minimum hours of balloon training required for the certificate, required solo flights, and flights to minimum altitudes (2,000’ private, 3,000’ commercial). Records of these balloon flights should be included in the flight instruction endorsements. One of the newest requirements for taking the practical is an endorsement that you have taken at least (2) 1 hours flights in the past 60 days in preparation for the hot air balloon checkride. This means that that balloon checkride endorsement you received last fall before the weather went south is no longer valid.

The application form (Form 8710) for the hot air balloon checkride is sometimes a hurdle as well. The recommending balloon instructor must sign and date the back of the form. The hours of balloon instruction listed on the form must meet the minimum required for the hot air balloon certificate.  The checkbox for drug convictions must be checked yes or no. If you’ve had a drug conviction within 1 year, don’t bother showing up. The height box is looking for your height in inches only. Be sure to bring a picture ID and one that shows a signature and address if not one in the same. It doesn’t matter whether the hot air balloon examiner is your brother-in-law, he will need these documents. Finally, you must sign the front page of the application.

One item sometimes left to the last minute is the aircraft itself. The hot air balloon must be in airworthy condition This not only means that the maintenance records must be up to date i.e. current annual/100 hour and ADs complied with etc, but everything has to work! Unfortunately, that includes your pyrometer. The temp tab cannot reflect a temperature higher than allowed by the flight manual and there can’t be any holes larger than the maximum allowed. Whatever you do, don’t forget the hot air balloon aircraft log book. The balloon examiner can’t cut any corners with regard to this airworthiness issue. Check everything twice.

One issue that I often find problematic on a hot air balloon checkride is the applicant’s use of a checklist. I’m sure that the problem is in no small part due to the fact that very few experienced balloon pilots are ever observed using one. Monkey see-Monkey do. I would encourage all student balloon pilots to use one religiously for the following reasons:

  1. If you wait until the balloon checkride to start using it, you will likely forget it or it will become an interruption rather than a tool.

  2. If you practice with one, you can add many extra items that will be useful during the balloon checkride so nothing will be forgotten in your nervousness (eg check fan placement, pax briefing language etc.)

  3. It will serve you well later as a hot air balloon pilot if only to remind you to get the radios, check the fuel, or some other detail that might be forgotten when preparing for the first flight in a month.

If there’s any other advice I could give for a checkride it’s try to stay relaxed. Certainly, that’s easier said than done. Most balloon checkride mistakes are cause by anxiety which pretty much eliminates clear intuitive thinking. One method of calming down is to use the thorough checklist to maximize your chances of a flawless inflation.  With that accomplished, you should be more relaxed and well on your way to a successful flight and that hot air balloon pilot certificate.