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Learning to Fly

How to Become a Balloon PilotHot balloon flight training

    Light Flight Hot Air Balloons provides flight training for Lighter-than-Air (LTA) Private and Commercial Hot Air Balloon licenses. While we offer rides in our biplane, we don't provide fixed wing or airplane flight instruction. If you want to learn to fly airplanes, and you live in our Central Maryland flying area, we suggest you contact Harford Air Services. If you live outside the area, the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association has a complete listing of flight schools.

Where do I start?

    The first question to answer is, why do you want to be a balloon pilot? The reason we pose this question up front is; it takes a fair amount of time, dedication, and resources to become a balloon pilot. There are other things to consider as well, the number of job opportunities for careers in ballooning are limited. Perhaps most important is the fact that unless you intend to buy a balloon either before or after you get your license, you will not have an aircraft to fly. There are no places to rent hot air balloons the way you may rent airplanes! You will simply have an expensive certificate to show for your efforts. Ballooning is a physical sport and while you do not require an FAA medical certificate, you must have no physical condition that would prevent you from flying safely. You will be expected to assist in handling equipment weighing several hundred pounds, be able to withstand hard landings (yours not mine), and working outdoors in temperature extremes. Still interested? Great!

    Their are many paths that one may take to obtain a license. The most usual, and highly recommended, is the path from crew person to pilot. That's someone who has been part of a balloon team and has experienced and learned a great deal about the sport by participating as a crew person for a pilot. Don't know what crewing is or what a crew person does? See our crew page for details. Crewing provides you the opportunity to learn, gain experience, and participate in the sport with only a commitment of time. Crewing will build a foundation of knowledge and better prepare you for training should you decide to pilot hot air balloons. We feel that having been a crew person also makes you a better pilot since you have walked a few miles in those shoes!

All training involves one-on-one lessons with a flight instructor. There is no certified flight instructor rating for balloons; the holder of a Commercial Balloon Pilot certificate may provide flight instruction.

balloon training studyWhat are the requirements to become a balloon pilot?

    To pilot a balloon you must have a pilot's license, or airman's certificate, just as you would for an airplane or any other aircraft. The only differences are the category of aircraft and the specific training requirements. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues balloon pilot licenses and we train for the Lighter-than-Air category, Hot Air Balloon with Airborne Heater rating. There is different training involved for gas balloons (those flown on helium, hydrogen, or any other lighter-than-air gas) and airships. The following information is taken in part from Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Air Regulations, Part 61 - Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors and Ground Instructors.

Student Pilot Requirements:

    This is the starting point for every beginning pilot. Your flight instructor will direct you to the local FAA office to obtain a Student Pilot Certificate. If you currently hold a FAA airman's certificate to pilot any other type of aircraft, a new student certificate is not required. 

  1. The minimum age to become a Student Pilot is 14.
  2. You must be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language.
  3. No medical certificate is required but you must have no condition that would prevent you from operating the aircraft safely.
  4. Student pilot certificates may be issued by FAA Inspectors or Designated Pilot Examiners.
  5. Student pilots may fly "solo" after completion of specified training in & demonstrated proficiency in pre-flight preparation, rigging, operation of controls, lift off, climbs, descents, landings, emergency procedures, Parts 61 & 91 of the Federal Air Regulations and a passing grade on a written pre-solo test.

Private Pilot Requirements:

To become a private pilot, you must fulfill the following minimum requirements as a Student Pilot:
  1. The minimum age to become a Private Pilot is 16.
  2. You must be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language.
  3. No medical certificate is required but you must have no condition that would prevent you from operating the aircraft safely.
  4. Have at least 10 hours of flight training which must include at least:
    • 6 flights with an instructor on the Private Pilot areas of operation 
    • 2 flights of 1 hour each within 60 days prior to taking the practical test
    • One controlled ascent to 2000 feet above the takeoff point
    • One solo flight
  5. Pass the written FAA Knowledge Test (or hold a Pilot Certificate for any powered aircraft).
  6. Pass the Practical Knowledge test (oral and flight) given by a designated FAA Flight Examiner or FAA Inspector.

Commercial Pilot Requirements:

To become a commercial pilot, you must fulfill the following minimum requirements as a private pilot:
  1. Be at least 18 years of age
  2. Read, speak, write and understand the English language
  3. Hold at least a Private Pilot Certificate
  4. No medical certificate is required but you must have no condition that would prevent you from operating the aircraft safely.
  5. Have at least 35 hours as a pilot, including 20 hours in balloons, which must include the following:
    • 10 flights in balloons
    • 10 hours of flight training that includes at least 10 flights with an instructor on the Commercial Pilot areas of operation
    • Two flights as pilot in command
    • One controlled ascent to 3000 feet above the takeoff point
    • 2 flights of 1 hour each within 60 days prior to taking the practical test
    • 2 solo flights
  6. Pass the written FAA Knowledge Test (or hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate for any powered aircraft).
  7. Pass the Practical Knowledge Test (oral and flight) given by a designated FAA Flight Examiner or FAA Inspector.

Limitations & Authorizations

Student Pilots - may not carry passengers.

Private Pilots - may carry passengers but not for hire & may not fly in any commercial capacity.

Commercial Balloon Pilots - may operate for hire, provide flight instruction, and engage in commercial flights.

How long will it take to get a license?

    The FAA requirements are only the minimum requirements. Most people are not ready for their "check ride" or practical test, with just the minimum amount of time. Our average student has around 22 hours and 10 to 14 months invested. There are many variables that will determine how long it will take before you are ready for a check ride. Some of them are:

  1. Your availability - how much time do you have to devote to training? Are you limited to weekends only? Most people are time limited by the demands of family and work. Obviously, the more free time you have, the more you may devote to your flight training.

  2. Weather - every aspect of ballooning is affected by the weather and various aspects of your training will require it to cooperate. You can go to our page on weather for a detailed discussion on the issues. The mid-Atlantic area is seasonal for ballooning and limited to the number of safe flying days when compared to someplace like Phoenix, which may have great flying weather all year round. As a student, you will fly in less than ideal weather as part of your training. We do this so you will be exposed to these conditions while you have the benefit of your instructors experience aboard. Your solo flying will require an even better scenario for you to be safe.

  3. Finances - We recommend that you not embark on any course of flight instruction until you are prepared to see it through financially. We are pay as you go, so there is no requirement to put down a large sum at once, however; if you have to take breaks in training, for any reason, it will ultimately cost you more. It will be two steps forward and one step back. Your training is built in blocks that require practice to learn specific skills; with breaks in training, you lose practice and have to repeat steps. It is important that you be consistent in your flying.

  4. Instructor & Equipment Availability - Your instructor will have other commitments too. Equipment taken out of service for inspections or repair can be a factor and there may be additional demands for aircraft if there are multiple students.

  5. Individual Aptitude - How quickly you learn and apply the lessons is an individual attribute for each student. Are you are rated in another category of aircraft, are you a quick study, and do you have feathers instead of hair? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, things will probably go faster for you!
balloon fliight instruction
    What you must learn:

    The FAA specifies the topics that you must be trained in and we will cover them in detail. The flight training will consist of:

  1. Preflight Planning - collection & analysis of weather data, and the selection of a launch site

  2. Preflight Procedures - the inspection of your aircraft for flight to include assembly, rigging, & checklists

  3. Airport Operations - navigation, communication and flying in the national airspace system

  4. Maneuvers - takeoffs, climbs, level flight, descents, approaches to and landings, use of steerage winds

  5. Emergency Procedures - fuel, fire, weather

  6. Performance Maneuvers - high altitude, rapid climbs & descents, high wind operations, high temperatures

  7. Federal Air Regulations - Part 61, Part 91, NTSB rules

  8. Aircraft Flight Manual - use of performance charts and calculating gross lift

  9. Post Flight Procedures - landowner relations, packing, fueling safety

    This listing only touches the surface of the subject matter that will be covered. The student will require about three, or more, times the amount of time spent with the instructor in independent study. You will be required to demonstrate your understanding of the topics thru routine oral examinations, quizzes, and the successful completion of the FAA written Knowledge Test with a score of 70 or above.

What is the CO$T?

    Training costs are per hour with a minimum of one hour required per training session. "In our balloon" assumes the use of our aircraft, chase vehicle, fans, radios, fuel, and crew. We do not give you an hourly rate and then add each of these as an additional fee.

                                      In Our Balloon          In Your Balloon 

Dual Flight Instruction           $475.00                    $175.00       Includes 1 hour of ground briefing/debriefing*  

Solo Flight (Supervised)         $475.00                    $100.00

Unsupervised Solo                 $475.00                      N/A

Ground Instruction                $  75.00                    $  75.00


Dual 6 Hours                        $2,850                      $1,050

Solo 4 Hours                        $1,900                         N/A

Ground Inst. (20 Hours)         $1,500                       $1,500

Written Examination              $90                           $90

Books & Materials                 $150                          $150

Examiners Fee                      $350                          $350

Minimum Costs                        $6,840.00                    $3,140.00  For a Hot Air Balloon Private Pilot certificate


    Training manuals, logbooks, sectional charts, and equipment are available to students at our cost, or they may be obtained commercially by the student, based on our recommendations. The dual price includes both a pre-flight briefing and post-flight critique of 30 minutes each. Additional time is charged at ground instruction rates. We utilize a Balloon Federation of America (BFA) approved flight training syllabus. These rates are subject to change without notice especially due to the possibility of a fuel surcharge to offset the high cost of fuel and its wildly fluctuating price. 


Recommended Books and Study Materials


      Aviation Weather - FAA Reprint       2013 FAR/AIM Book - ASA      Gleim Aviation Weather and Weather Services      Gleim Private Pilot Written Exam Guide       Front Cover 

    Cutting the Shirt Tail - A Time Honored Tradition - there are many traditions associated with flying and this is our favorite. As the story goes, in the good old days of early airplane training, the student sat in front of the instructor in tandem seat airplanes. There was no way to easily talk to the student; in order to get their attention and to keep them out of trouble, the instructor would tug on the shirt tail of the student. After sufficient trainingSolo flight shirt tail cutting tradition, the student was sent out for a "solo" flight; their first flight by themselves. Upon landing, the fledgling pilot's shirt tail was cut off by the instructor to signify that it was no longer needed - the student had demonstrated their skill and competence by returning safely to Mother Earth! The date and details of this momentous event were recorded on the piece of cloth and hung on a hangar wall for all to see! While this tradition originated in airplanes, we believe that it's worth keeping alive, even in balloons!

                                            Immediately after his "First Solo" (first flight alone) Student Pilot Joe gets his shirt tail cut by his instructor Mike!



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  This page last revised January 2015

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