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.