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
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
(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
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
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.