The Autumn Aloft Hot Air Balloon Festival kicks off its third year running September 16 and even though 16 lives were lost in a balloon accident in Texas on July 30, Mike Bauwens, who is the balloon meister with 39 years’ experience under his belt, said there’s no need to change procedure.
“The incident in Texas was a result of fog in the area and limited visibility and the individual decided to fly in spite of a low fog," Bauwens said. "In general, balloons go so slow the odds of a problem occurring were pretty low but still there was a risk there. That in combination with some bad luck, hit some wires.”
Bauwens has served as a balloon meister for more than 20 years to places as far away as Israel.
He said balloon pilots have the same requirements as airplane pilots with one exception. Balloon pilots are not required to be examined by a doctor.
Bauwens said that the Autumn Aloft is not an event that balloonists take risks with.
“Balloons are susceptible to weather," Bauwens said. " They’re actually very forgiving though even in hostile weather where if it’s windy or whatever. But in an event like this, we don’t push the limits, we don’t even come close.”
He said hot air balloon pilots have a very good record for safety.
“Even though balloons do fly passengers for hire they have been required to, in other words, tell the FAA if they’ve had a DUI or not," Bauwens said. "But some balloon pilots have not followed through with that.”
Bauwens said he personally selects the pilots that he will permit to fly at his events.
“I don’t just choose from a large lot of pilots and hope that they come ready to fly," Bauwens said. "These people are hand selected for their skills, and their good attitude and their enjoyment of entertaining the people of Park City.”
Even so, he said he has no qualms pulling a pilot from the festival.
“If I had any indication someone was doing a lot of partying the night before, they wouldn’t be invited," Bauwens said. "It just wouldn’t be a factor.”
He said he doesn’t take any chances with the weather, the pilots or anything else that could potentially cause harm.
There are 24 balloonists participating this year and festival attendees can expect to see some unusual shapes not typical of balloons but refused to hint as to what those shapes were saying, “You’ll have to come to find out.”
As for those watching from afar, he said not to panic if you see a balloon flying low over homes.
“It’s safer to make a final approach from a lower position so that there’s no risk of turning one way or another or missing your landing spot," Bauwens said. "So, don’t be alarmed if you see a balloon flying low because he’s probably trying to get into a better position or he’s trying to make a landing.”
Bauwens said pilots are friendly and enjoy when people approach them. They love showing off their balloons, teaching adults and children the beauty of balloon flight.