by Allen Amsbaugh and Tom Hamilton
In ballooning the Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS, in often referred to as the "get of out jail free card." Pilots who may have inadvertently violated a part of the Federal Aviation Regulations file a form with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that details the incident and make suggestions that might help correct the problem.
The FAA offers ASRS reporters guarantees and incentives to report. It has committed itself not to use ASRS information against reporters in enforcement actions. It has also chosen to waive fines and penalties, subject to certain limitations, for unintentional violations of federal aviation statutes and regulations which are reported to ASRS. Thus, the thought of a "get out jail free card."
ASRS was established in 1975 under a Memorandum of Agreement between the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. FAA provides most of the program funding; NASA administers the program and sets its policies in consultation with the FAA and the aviation community.
Purposes of Program
The purpose is not to say a "Hail Mary" and escape punishment for an FAR infraction. Rather, the ASRS collects, analyzes, and responds to voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident reports in order to lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents. ASRS data are used to:
Identify deficiencies and discrepancies in the National Aviation System so that these can be remedied by appropriate authorities.
Support policy formulation and planning for, and improvements to, the NAS.
Strengthen the foundation of aviation human factors safety research. This is particularly important since it is generally conceded that over two-thirds of all aviation accidents and incidents have their roots in human performance errors.
Confidentiality and Incentives to Report
Pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, mechanics, ground personnel, and others involved in aviation operations submit reports to the ASRS when they are involved in, or observe, an incident or situation in which aviation safety was compromised. All submissions are voluntary.
Reports sent to the ASRS are held in strict confidence. More than 300,000 reports have been submitted to date and no reporter's identity has ever been breached by the ASRS. ASRS de-identifies reports before entering them into the incident database. All personal and organizational names are removed. Dates, times, and related information, which could be used to infer an identity, are either generalized or eliminated.
Incident reports are read and analyzed by ASRS's corps of aviation safety analysts. The analyst staff is composed entirely of experienced pilots and air traffic controllers. Their years of experience are uniformly measured in decades, and cover the full spectrum of aviation activity: air carrier, military, and general aviation; Air Traffic Control in Towers, TRACONS, Centers, and Military Facilities.
Each report received by the ASRS is read by a minimum of two analysts. Their first mission is to identify any aviation hazards which are discussed in reports and flag that information for immediate action.
When such hazards are identified, an alerting message is issued to the appropriate FAA office or aviation authority. Analysts' second mission is to classify reports and diagnose the causes underlying each reported event. Their observations, and the original de-identified report, are then incorporated into the ASRS's database.
Balloon Reports to ASRS
More and more balloonists, or aeronauts, have become aware of and are using the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) to report safety concerns or perceived violations. A review was performed of 109 ballooning incidents reported to the ASRS from 1990 to 1994. There were no reports from gas balloon or airship flights, possibly a reflection of the low level of activity in these sectors. Also, there were no reports from any of the highly publicized long distance or altitude flights. This may reflect the extra caution, care, and planning that goes into these flights, as opposed to the casual weekend sport flight or the flights taken by commercial pilots.
Most of the reporters state that weather and winds were the cause of their incidents. These adverse wind and weather conditions are often found only in a very small area and thus may be termed micro-meteorological conditions. Weather briefers tasked with providing area and airport-specific aviation forecasts may be unable to provide micro-meteorological forecasts or reports about conditions of concern to the balloonist. Consequently, most observation is done by the balloonist on the spot after getting all available official reports. This often leads to surprises, incidents, accidents, and sometimes, to tragedy.
Sixty-five of the 109 reports (60%) listed weather factors as the cause of the incident. (See Figure 1.)
As may be seen in Figure 2, forty-three of the weather-involved reporters (66%) listed unforecast increasing winds as their problem. Nine reports attributed their difficulties to thermals, or other downdrafts, forcing the balloon into the ground. An additional eight reports listed becoming becalmed as the source of their dilemma—not enough wind can be almost as hazardous as too much. One aeronaut became becalmed over trees at sunset, and pulled himself to a clearing by using the treetops. Finally, five reports were received from pilots who found themselves VFR in IMC due to fog or fast-forming clouds underneath.
What Happens in Balloon Incidents
In truth, probably all of the balloon incidents could be considered weather related, as low-level flights to find suitable landing sites, landing in residential areas, and hard landings are usually caused by winds that are not favorable to the balloonist. Even some of the ground incidents undoubtedly involved unreported weather factors.
Eleven of the incidents reported involved airspace violations by aeronauts who found themselves inside the edge of Class "B," "C," or "D" air space without proper radio contact due to a wind shift, faulty or no radio, or faulty navigation. Two aeronauts were intercepted by Air National Guard F-16s while in R-5503. The balloons were flying legally; it was the fighters who were in the airspace early and no NOTAM had been issued.
Midair collisions between balloons accounted for nine of the incidents, with five reporting damage, and one reporting an injury. Most balloon mid air collisions are of the "kiss" variety where there is very little relative velocity. Reports concerning damage and injury were of the variety where the lower balloon did not observe common-sense rules in a crowded situation. In one incident, the lower pilot climbed rapidly into a balloon above. The balloon below has the right-of way because of the lack of visibility, but this does not allow the lower balloon to climb rapidly. In an attempt to preclude this type of mishap, most balloon-meets limit the climb and descent rates to 200 feet per minute.
Six of the reports were from air carrier pilots who encountered balloons a in "their" airspace. The gist of their reports was that they were loath to share the airspace and were surprised by the presence of the balloons.
Conflict with Ground and Objects
Seventeen of the reported incidents concerned flights into powerlines, the one incident which causes the most fatalities in ballooning. In one third of these incidents, the reporters stated that the powerlines were obscured in trees. More than half reported minor damage, and three reported injuries.
There have been other reported injuries, including two broken ankles, to passengers who were not wearing proper footwear in a "ride" balloon. Another ASRS incident record describes one of the more serious types of incidents when working with balloons or airships—attempting to hold the aerostat down by hanging onto a line or the exterior of the basket. In this instance, a crewman lost his grip and fell, breaking an arm and an ankle. No one should ever let his or her feet leave the ground when handling a lighter-than-air vehicle.
They Don't Understand
One of the problems aeronauts find in almost every flight is the notion, "If you're having fun, or doing some thing unusual, it must be illegal!" This attitude seems to be pervasive among unknowledgeable observers. One reporter describes a balloon landing on a boat in a lake after becoming becalmed. The aeronaut and his balloon were successfully retrieved, only to find themselves on the evening news! Fortunately, the local FSDO was able to laugh with the aeronaut over this. In another incident, a balloon was seen flying through the tops of some trees, an accepted practice to slow forward velocity, and then landed safely in a vacant area. The observer was the local fire chief who "called out the artillery."
The Sky is Falling
Four incidents related to livestock on the ground. One involved a typical "balloon dog" that got upset, then barked and upset its owner. In another report, the balloon spooked some cattle, and in another incident, the balloon flew low over an aviary that was not on the pilot's chart. The most serious incident was the alleged spooking of a horse. Its rider was thrown and suffered a broken arm.
Balloon fatalities can also result from a propane leak, either in flight or on the ground. Three reporters listed a propane leak—two in the air and one on the ground. In one incident there was damage, and the other resulted in injury. In a fourth incident, an aeronaut reported fuel contamination of an unknown source.
Counting the Problems
Of the 109 incidents studied, 25 reported damage to their balloon or to another balloon; 13 reported injuries; and 25 reported official action taken, mostly by local law enforcement or fire departments.
The Final Word
Reading these incident reports reminds one that ballooning can be a hazardous sport, but there are actually few injuries and little damage. Nonetheless, the following suggestions may help reduce the potential for incident:
* Obtain all available weather information;
* Carefully observe local conditions before committing to flight;
* If unfamiliar with the micrometeorology of any area, seek local advice from experienced balloonists;
* Brief passengers and crew on all normal and abnormal preflight, inflight, and post-flight procedures.
For more information on ASRS read Advisory Circular 00-46C or visit the ASRS web-site at http://olias.arc.nasa.gov/asrs. The AC, reporting forms, and other information can be downloaded directly from this Internet site.
Part of this article originally appeared in ASRS Directline, a publication of NASA's ASRS program. Allen Amsbaugh is a balloon pilot and ASRS analyst. He researched and wrote the original article. Editor