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From time to time, quite spectacular videos turn up from hot air balloons landing in unusual or even quite tight spots, such as on a soccer field in Vlijmen, on a road in Nijkerk, or even on a small playground in Utrecht (all in The Netherlands).

While I appreciate the fact that only the height can be controlled directly and not much else, I can't help but wonder if it's safe to do so, and if it's allowed.

I've tried searching, but all that turned up was information on landing on a farmer's field. That is allowed and there are rules for handling that.

Are there any regulations concerning landing in built-up areas? Or can a balloon land anywhere? Or may a pilot be sanctioned afterwards for getting into a situation where they needed to land in such a spot?

I'm mainly interested in the Dutch law and regulations, but wouldn't mind learning about those in other countries. I'm also curious to learn what the considerations are when choosing a landing spot.

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  • $\begingroup$ For the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, you get told not to land on the airport/Air Force base to the south. The security forces really don't like it. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ The thing with unpowered aircraft (balloons, gliders, but also airplanes with a power emergency) is that the laws of physics don't care much about the laws of men. If you're going down, you're going down, and you sort out whether you were allowed to go down where you went down after you survived the landing. The third video is titled "emergency landing" if my one and a half words of Dutch aren't failing me, so it clearly was either land in the playground and live or crash into the buildings and (potentially) die. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 13:04

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From the few countries I looked at, the general rules are:

  • One can fly anywhere, as long as enforcing regulated and prohibited areas like other pilots.
  • Regulated areas include inhabited areas, there is at least a minimum distance and often a minimum height.
  • Pilots must plan their landing in authorized areas, taking elements into account. An emergency landing is still lawful, like for other types of flights. Many or most are due to pilot delaying the decision to terminate the flight.
  • Pilot incapacitation may lead to emergency landing (by another person than the pilot), or to crash landing. Recently FAA was pushed by NTSB to act, at least on medical conditions required to fly.
  • Pilots are supposed to be familiar with the related rules and NOTAMs.
  • When it can be proved pilots have been careless or reckless, they are sanctioned.

I'm focusing on heated air balloons and excluding tethered, unmanned and high altitude balloons


A balloon pilot must plan their landing according to weather forecast, on a safe area, and only on a private property for which they have the authorization to land. When the intended flight cannot be followed because of a failure, because being short of gas, or because of atmospheric conditions, then an emergency landing must be carried on. As balloons have no control surface, that means the landing area cannot be selected, except by accelerating the descent or slowing it as long as possible (heating air or jettisoning ballast).

After the facts, in case of damage, if any person was injured or killed, if any complaint is issued or just if police is informed of the landing, then it's a matter of proving the pilot acted carelessly or recklessly.

If this is the case the pilot incurs civil and criminal penalties. E.g. pilot not acting in time in this event New Zealand:

K... v Civil Aviation Authority involved a fatal incident. K... was convicted of breaching a former civil aviation regulation by flying a balloon in circumstances whereby avoidable danger to life or property was likely to ensue. K... was piloting the balloon when it was blown 200 metres offshore. The balloon landed in the sea and three people died. The trial judge found K... had failed to keep proper lookout for weather changes during the flight. K... was acquitted of one charge of
careless flying.

As for whether emergency landings are hazardous: They are, in particular the velocity and the vertical position of the gondola are not controlled. There are online accounts for serious injuries after uncontrolled landings and statistics from EASA (all EU countries, also includes collisions):

EASA statistics on balloon incidents and accidents.

EASA statistics on balloon incidents and accidents, source

I was not able to determine exact rules for Netherlands, not even a summary of rules applicable to EU countries, however I'll give you the links to the legal framework for EU. But to start with, there are two approaches: Australia is rather liberal, no license is required, while US includes hot air balloons in general aviation aircraft.

Australia, regulated by CASA

In Australia commercial activities require a license but recreational ballooning is not regulated.

Balloon pilots can only land on private property if they, or their support vehicle driver, have permission from the property owner. Permission is not required in emergencies, or if no other landing site is available.

Pilots must plan their flight based on forecast meteorological conditions. However, changes in wind conditions could alter the balloon's navigational tracking from that originally planned.

When over populated areas, balloons must fly at least 1000 feet above ground level. When over other areas, balloons do not have to fly at a minimum height

Source: CASA.

US: Regulated by FAA

Balloon emergency landing in Illinois

Perfectly lawful emergency landing in Illinois, source

Hot air balloon operations are conducted in accordance with FAR Part 91 (general aviation) and pilots must hold a license according to FAR Part 61, with a minimum of 10 hours of flight, 35 hours for a commercial pilot (more).

FAA issued a AC summarizing balloons operations.

Ballooning operations are regulated like other GA operations. In particular access to airspace of different classes follows the same constraints. Most flights occurs in class G airspace (uncontrolled) or E (controlled) and below 14,500 ft and all under VFR. FAR 91:119 still specifies minimum safe 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.

The first paragraph requires the pilot to be able to execute an emergency landing at any time to prevent an accident.

Netherlands: Mostly regulated by EASA, with local details

As said, I was not able to find a summary of rules applicable to balloons in Netherlands, so you may need to read the highly indigestible documentation from EU, the main problem with the text is there are constant abstruse references to other texts, and seemingly no single composite version.

The base for aeronautical operations are the Standardised European Rules of the Air (SERA), complemented by the recent EC 2018/395. A license is required (EC 1178/2011). It includes a knowledge test in different domains, a medical certificate and 16 hours of flight, 50 for commercial flights (more).

Then there is a local act on aviation, The Wet Luchtvaart.

About flying areas, it seems the principle is similar to US, balloons are considered aircraft. Maybe specific to Netherlands, locations used by balloons for launch and landing are subject to authorization from the municipality.

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usa streets and parks and farms and whatever are the norm for hot air balloons. Understand this is a sport balloon not a utility aircraft for going from point a to point b. Which means you generally have one or a few launch spots that you always use, and you fly the same area that you have always flown, so you know where there are open spots with access, based on the ballooning community and the locals, there are places that are known to the community to be balloon friendly and places that are not.

We are trained, or should be, to recognize crops and where they are, to know if the field is freshly planted or not in use. One should if possible land on the access roads and not on the crops, even if not in use, the crew should avoid driving across the field and even walking on the field. The access roads are often next to trees or other obstacles. If you do land on a field you should attempt to find the landowner, etc, etc. Likewise with livestock, and how to fly or land near different types of livestock.

Usually, if not as a rule, you are trained by someone local and by the time you have hours or have purchased a balloon, you are somewhat familiar with the area, good launch spots, directions you should never fly for various reasons, etc. When you go out of town it is generally for a rally, and organized rallies generally have faa waivers for height above ground, aircraft to aircraft, etc. but also the organizers generally provide a map of the area and have red zones for balloon unfriendly properties. these are locals that fly this area often and know it like we know our own areas. and if you go to this rally year after year you begin to learn that area as well.

I have landed in back yards in desperation and a walmart parking lot once. I have seen pilots land in soccer fields during a match. not a good idea, but perhaps like no other aircraft, depending where you are (west mesa of albuquerque is generally super easy to fly, not only does it have great ballooning weather and the box, but out on the mesa nothing but open space) the moment you launch you are working the landing, some places are much harder to fly than others and you need not only the steerage skills (yes you can "steer" a balloon) but experience.

normally you look for open, unused land with access and no obstacles. depending on where you are the edge of the city is great because it is likely government or unused land where the owners will not have a problem if they even bother. some folks are very excited that you landed there vs angry.

I have not flown in other countries to know how it works, but if there is a local community then that community will know the local "rules" if you will, where the launch spots are where the landing spots are and most important which directions not to go and what land to avoid and by how much.

our "steerage" is based on the wind and flatlands it is often one direction so steerage means you put a pi ball up and draw a straight line from your possible launch spot and look on the map for landing spots. if there is steerage either due to drainage or due to wind direction due to mountains, etc. then you use that steerage as well as experience or maps to land in places you are familiar, if possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Put a pi ball up" -- care to elaborate/clarify? I'm guessing this might be a reference to launching a toy balloon to check the wind? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ yes, not sure on the spelling. releasing a latex balloon or two and watching them to see the wind layers to get a feel for the speed and steerage at the time. $\endgroup$
    – old_timer
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ yes, toy balloon, birthday party balloon. helium filled latex balloon. a number of websites spell it as pie ball $\endgroup$
    – old_timer
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 15:56

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