The Dangerous Power of Power Lines Tips for Avoiding Collisions and Close Encounters

--by Adam Magee, FAA Safety Team Rep

A popular saying is that “flying is the second greatest thrill known to man, landing is the first.” That certainly rings true for the lighter-than-air community, as nearly every balloon landing involves the need to navigate obstacles. Power lines are a big one — contact with power lines is the number one cause of fatal balloon accidents.

Emergency! Issue of FAA Safety Briefing Magazine

Pre-flight Prep

The first step in accident prevention is the critical “go/no go” decision, which includes use of preflight checklists and decision making tools as part of a proactive strategy. I am an avid believer in the PAVE and IM SAFE checklists. PAVE stands for Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, and External pressure. You can consider the IM SAFE checklist as a branch of the Pilot part of PAVE. It stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Eating. These items combine to determine your personal level of risk for a flight, and they could prompt you to cancel or reschedule the flight.

Many factors can elevate the risk of a flight, so you need to carefully consider what it’s going to take for you to cancel your flight. One thing? Two things? Three? I often tell pilots in training that PAVE and IM SAFE are there for you to “be aware of your unawareness.” These elements represent things that might cause you to second guess some of your decisions had an accident occurred. For example, you might say, “If I had known [fill-in-the-blank], I wouldn’t have flown” or, “If I had known there weren’t many landing options downwind, I would have rescheduled my flight.”

In essence, PAVE and IM SAFE offer an opportunity to review factors and risks that you might be unaware of. I also tell students to “Always set up your flight for success!” Use PAVE and IM SAFE, use checklists, plan your flight, and follow the balloon flying rule of thumb for 100 feet of downwind distance from obstacles for each knot of wind during takeoff. Give yourself the best opportunity to succeed. Don’t cut corners or allow hurrying, complacency, and laziness to ruin your day.


A balloon flight can provide many distractions that break a normal flow and disrupt standard procedures. One such distraction is coordinating with a chase crew. I will always remember a time when I was a child watching several balloons take off in a field. There were power lines downwind but during takeoff one pilot was searching for his handheld radio. Thus distracted, the pilot flew right into the power lines. Thankfully, the pilot survived by turning off the fuel and pulling the top to allow the balloon to drape over the power lines.

Passengers can create distractions. It’s normal for passengers to use mobile phones and social media during a flight, but don’t let that be a distraction to you. Among other things, a balloon pilot should not take any passenger photos during a flight unless the situation is deemed safe and there is no threat of power lines.

Spectators can also become a distraction. Waving and talking to friendly landowners can be fun, but one vital lesson that I teach all students is to fly the balloon first, and always! The rest can wait.

During Flight

Even while in compliance with minimum safe altitudes, balloons fly in close proximity to power lines during contour flying or on approach to landings. I tell students to fly the power poles. Here’s what I mean. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to see the power line itself. It is much easier to look for power poles, but that too comes with a caveat: “flying the poles” can be difficult in places where aesthetically pleasing power poles blend in with the environment. The smartest strategy is to expect a power line to every building — even barns or outhouses, as well as just about every road or driveway. Count on their existence until you are absolutely sure the area is clear.

If you are contour flying, be careful when operating below tree height as power lines may be hiding. Similarly, if there is a gap in the trees on approach to landing, be aware that power poles could be in those trees with a line going right between the trees you are planning to “split.” I once decided to have a student practice an approach to landing over power lines. I told the student to assume the trees were power lines and to make the approach over them. As it turned out, there were power lines hidden in those trees.

The key takeaway is to maintain a healthy respect for power lines. A balloon should always be at an appropriate height above power lines. It should be level or ascending when approaching and crossing power lines. The pilot must be aware of wind shear that could put the aircraft into a “false heavy” situation that pushes it down into a power line. To avoid the dangers created by wind shear, keep an appropriate height above power lines and maintain control while in the descent. Precision is especially important in order to maintain control while transitioning the wind layer upon approach to landing.

Upon Landing

Again, expect power lines everywhere. Scan the area multiple times and ask the ground crew to do the same. The crew use radio or hand signals to identify power lines on approach.

Avoiding power lines and other obstacles requires the pilot to plan the approach based on winds. One helpful technique is to have the ground crew release a pibal (helium balloon) to identify wind directions above the ground. I carry shaving cream onboard to help me see the winds below.

Be mindful of obstacles 360 degrees around the balloon, and maintain awareness of the balloon’s movement on approach. A pilot should pick a point of no return that leaves plenty of space before obstacles. When looking for an appropriate landing spot and while on approach, use the GPS to keep track of speed.

What if a Power Line Strike is Imminent?

“When in doubt rip it out!” If a power line strike is imminent, the safest decision is to turn off all fuel, bleed all remaining fuel from the lines, and “rip out” (e.g., open wide) the deflation port. Cooling and descending is a much quicker action, which allows for greater chance of survival in this situation.

Making contact with a power line at the basket or flying wires level is extremely dangerous. It is considered less dangerous to hit at the envelope level and drape the balloon over the power lines. If a pilot “rips out,” there is a better chance of contacting the lines with the envelope. Attempting to operate the burners to overfly power lines too often results in contacting the lines at the flying wires or basket, which increases the risk of fatalities. As all balloonists should know, initiating an ascent in a balloon can be slow due to the time it takes the burners to raise the balloon’s internal temperature.

“When in doubt rip it out!” If a power line strike is imminent, the safest decision is to turn off all fuel, bleed all remaining fuel from the lines, and “rip out” (e.g., open wide) the deflation port.

Summing it Up

Nearly every balloon landing involves the need to navigate obstacles, including power lines. Keep these tips in mind to avoid the dangerous power of power lines.

Adam Magee is a commercial hot air balloon pilot/flight instructor, an FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Representative, and was named the 2019 District and Regional FAA CFI of the Year. He is co-founder/president of The Balloon Training Academy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and an appointed training provider of the FAASTeam.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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