Contour flying may be the most fun and most challenging, but, at the same time, it may also be the most hazardous and most misunderstood of all balloon flight maneuvers. [Figure 4-1]

A good definition of contour flying is flying safely at low altitude, while obeying all regulations, considering persons, animals, and property on the ground. Safe contour flying means never creating a hazard to persons in the basket or on the ground, or to any property, including the balloon.

At first glance, the definition is subjective. One person’s hazard may be another person’s fun. For instance, a person who has never seen a balloon before may think a basket touching the surface of a lake is dangerous, while the pilot may believe a splashand- dash is fun.


Legal contour flying has a precise definition. While the FAA has not specifically defined contour, it has specified exactly what minimum altitudes are. 14 CFR part 91, section 91.119, refers to three different areas: anywhere, over congested areas, and over other than congested areas, including open water and sparsely populated areas.

More balloonists are issued FAA violations for low flying than for any other reason. Many pilots do not understand the minimum safe altitude regulation. A high percentage of balloonists believe the regulation was written for heavier-than-air aircraft and that it does not apply to balloons. The fact is, the regulation was written to protect persons and property on the ground and it applies to all aircraft, including balloons.

Since this regulation is so important to balloonists, the following is the printed applicable portion.

14 CFR part 91, section 91.119—Minimum safe altitudes: General (in part).

“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.”

The regulation refers to aircraft. Balloons are aircraft; therefore, the regulation applies to balloons.

14 CFR part 91, section 91.119(a) requires a pilot to fly at an altitude that will allow for a power unit failure and/or an emergency landing without undo hazards to persons or property. All aircraft should be operated so as to be safe, even in worst-case conditions. Every good pilot is always thinking “what if...,” and should operate accordingly.

This portion of the regulation can be applied in the following way. When climbing over an obstacle, you can make the balloon just clear the obstacle, fly over it with room to spare, or give the obstacle sufficient clearance to account for a problem, or miscalculation. An obstacle can be overflown while climbing, descending, or in level flight. You would have the most opportunity to misjudge the obstacle when in descending flight. In level flight the danger is reduced. You encounter the least hazard by climbing. Some instructors teach minimizing the hazard by climbing as you approach, thus giving room to coast over the obstacle in case of a burner malfunction.

14 CFR part 91, section 91.119(b) concerns flying over congested areas, such as settlements, towns, cities, and gatherings of people. You must stay 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot radius of the balloon. This is a straightforward regulation and easy to understand. Note that the highest obstacle will probably be a transmitting antenna, or some tall object, not the rooftops. Two thousand feet is almost half a mile.

A good pilot should add chicken farms, turkey farms, and dairies to the 1,000-feet-above rule. Domestic animals, while not specifically mentioned in the regulations, are considered to be property, and experienced pilots know that chickens, ducks, turkeys, swine, horses, and cows are sometimes spooked by the overflight of a balloon. Livestock in large fields seem to be less bothered by balloons; however, it is always a good idea to stay at least 700 feet away from domestic animals.

14 CFR part 91, section 91.119(c) has two parts: sparsely populated and unpopulated. Here the pilot must stay at least 500 feet away from persons, vehicles, vessels, and structures. Away from is the secret to understanding this rule. The regulation specifies how high above the ground the pilot must be and also states the pilot may never operate closer than 500 feet.

There exists a possibility for misunderstanding in interpreting the difference between congested and other than congested. Where does congested area end and other than congested area begin. For example, operating below 1,000 feet AGL within 2,000 feet of a congested area is in violation of 14 CFR part 91, section 91.119(b), even though the bordering area may be used only for agricultural purposes. Therefore, if you are flying over unpopulated land near a housing tract, you must fly either above 1,000 feet AGL, or stay 2,000 feet away from the houses.

14 CFR part 91, section 91.119 is a very important regulation and is often misunderstood. In coastal areas, pilots often receive violations from the FAA for flying low along or near people on otherwise deserted beaches. The pilot will say, “But I was not over the people, I was 100 yards out over the water.” The regulation states 500 feet away from, not 500 feet over. There is a definite difference.

To stay 500 feet away from an isolated farmhouse, for instance, imagine a 1,000-foot diameter clear hemisphere centered over the building. If you are 400 feet away from the structure on the horizontal plane, you only need to fly about 300 feet AGL to be 500 feet away from it. If the balloon passes directly over the building, then you must be a minimum of 500 feet above the rooftop, chimney, or television antenna to be legal.

In summary, regulations require: (1) flying high enough to be safe if you have a problem; (2) 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot radius above a congested area; and (3) an altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the balloon may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure. This is an easy-to-understand regulation, and must be complied with. The minimum altitude regulations are those most often broken by balloonists. If you understand the regulation, you should have no problem complying with it.

The balloon practical test standard (PTS) asks the applicant to demonstrate contour flying by using all flight controls properly, to maintain the desired altitude based on the appropriate clearance over terrain and obstacles, consistent with safety. The pilot must consider the effects of wind gusts, wind shear, thermal activity and orographic conditions, and allow adequate clearance for livestock and other animals.

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