The FAA and Complaints

By far the biggest risk balloonists face with regard to FAA certificate action is a low flying violation. Cruising the terrain seems like a natural thing to do with a balloon. However, the FARs don’t seem to support what comes natural. Below is a reprint of the actual FARS defining the rules.

FAR 91.119 – Minimum safe altitudes: General

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

  • (a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
  • (b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
  • (c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
  • (d) Helicopters. Helicopters may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface. In addition, each person operating a helicopter shall comply with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the Administrator.

If we could just convince the FAA to replace the word “Helicopters” with “Balloons” our problems would vanish. Right? Wrong! If this rule were changed, those low flying complaints would still come in from angry landowners because they are mad and wouldn’t know about the rule change anyway. My point is that while we as balloonists certainly fall under this regulatory requirement, the vast majority of the time this rule is enforced only because of public complaints.

The personnel at the FAA are as busy as they have ever been. Their staff numbers have dwindled in the past few years due to budget constraints yet their workload has not. As a result, they do not tend to be looking for “something else to do”. However, when a written complaint comes in to the office, they are compelled to investigate. The key here is for us to minimize the chance for public complaints in addition to not abusing the rules.

The FAA has derived a policy (some FSDOs will differ slightly) regarding low flight in balloons. While balloonists have always hung their hats on “Except for takeoff or landing” as license for low flying, the FAA has determined that if a balloon makes a landing anywhere in a “Congested area”, the flight is over. A subsequent takeoff from there (without deflating) will be grounds for a violation. With that in mind, let’s focus on the complaint end of the equation.

Many years ago, a group of us did a door to door public survey around here concerning the question of whether the people around here liked balloons or not. The purpose was gauge how much resistance there would be to a large balloon event in this small town. The numbers came in consistently throughout the area. Five per cent of the people said “No way”. Another 5% said they didn’t care. A full 90% said they thought it was a great idea and that they loved balloons. Unfortunately, what the survey didn’t ask was how loud the dissenting 5% were compared to the 90%. It has come to my attention that this 5% are significantly more vocal than everyone else combined. Therefore, it is them that we are dealing with in terms of complaints.

Complaints generally stem from several sources.

Those that have had legitimate or perceived damage to their crops, livestock or property at some time. They never seem to forget.

Those that are disturbed by the noise on a regular basis while sleeping.

Those that are just plain ornery. The people seem to come up with new and interesting reasons for their dislike of balloons.

How do we mitigate complaints from this group?

Be aware of the location of these chronic complainers. Disperse this information and any new additions to the list to all of the pilots in the area, especially transient pilots (they should be calling a local). Give them a wide berth and plenty of altitude during flight.

Change launch locations on a regular basis. I know this is sometimes difficult but it is perhaps the most critical element to the complaint issue. Commercial ride balloons tend to get comfortable in one launch site and saturate an area on a daily basis. It behooves them to try mixing it up and varying their launch sites if at all possible. Be aware that weekend mornings are the most susceptible to noise complaints

Talk to these people and get them to call you in case of an incident. If you can calm them down, the chance of a written complaint going to the FAA is minimized.

The first rule of thumb for avoiding low flying complaints and FAA certificate action is to adhere to the FARs as stated above. However, we all know that occasionally portions of our flying path fall into a gray area that lies on the “edge” of these FAR mandates. Just in case you would inadvertently fracture one of the rules, it might be prudent to focus on minimizing complaints throughout your flights and your oversight will may go unnoticed.

The bottom line is to pick a flight path that has not been saturated by repeated flying. The best corridors tend to be commercial areas although they also tend to be somewhat congested. Fly smart and you will keep flying.