A Personal Checklist

by Tom Hamilton

As pilots we are taught to preflight our balloon using a checklist. This checklist provides a guidleline to help assure that the aerostat will preform safely in flight. But, what about ourselves? Are we in an "airworthy" condition to fly the aerostat? What external and internal pressures are affecting our performance?

A number of factors common to everyday lives of human beings can have a profound adverse effect upon their abilities to safely pilot their balloon. Illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and emotion are all areas of concern to any one climbing into the basket with the intent of piloting their balloon.

Below is a checklist, developed by the Federal Aviation Administration, to consider for your condition prior to flight. Ask yourself, I'M SAFE?


Even a minor illness suffered in day-to-day living can degrade performance of many piloting tasks vital to safe flight. Illness can produce fever and distracting symptoms that can impair judgement, memory, alertness, and the ability to make mental calculations or read charts completely. Although symptoms from an illness may be under control with a medication, the medication, the medication itself may decrease pilot performance. The safest rule is not to fly while suffering from any illness. If this rule is considered too stringent for a particular illness, the pilot should check with their physician and/or aviation medical examiner for advice.


Pilot performance can be seriously degraded by both prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as by the medical conditions for which they are taken. Many medications, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, strong pain relievers, and cough-suppressant preparations, have primary effects that may impair Judgement, memory, alertness, coordination, vision and the ability to make mental calculations such as winds aloft to compass headings or fuel timing etc.

Others such as antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, muscle relaxants, and agents to control diarrhea and motion sickness, have side effects that may impair the same critical functions. Any medication that depresses the central nervous system, such as tranquilizer or antihistamine, can make a pilot more susceptible to hypoxia.

The Federal Aviation Regulations prohibit pilots from performing crew members duties while using medication that affects the faculties in any way contrary to safety. Caution. The FARs prohibit a pilot who possesses a current medical certificate from performing crew member duties while the pilot has a known medical condition or increase of a known medical condition that would make the pilot unable to meet the standards for the medical certificate. If you submitted a statement in place of taking the medical examination for the medical certificate, you certified that you had no known medical defect that would make you unable to pilot a free balloon.


Stress from the pressures of everyday living can impair pilot performance, often in very subtle ways. Difficulties at work or at home can occupy thought processes enough to markedly decrease alertness. Distractions can interfere with Judgement that unwarranted risks are taken, such as flying in deteriorating weather conditions. Stress and fatigue can be an extremely hazardous combination. Most pilots do not leave stress "on the ground." Therefore, when more than usual difficulties are being experienced, the pilot should consider delaying a flight until these difficulties are resolved.


Extensive research has provided a number of facts about the hazards of alcohol consumption and flying. As little as one ounce of liquor, one bottle of beer or four ounces of wine can impair flying skills, with the alcohol consumed in these drinks being detectable in the breath and blood for at least three hours.

Even after the body completely destroys a moderate amount of alcohol, a pilot can still be severely impaired for several hours by hangover. There is simply no way of increasing the destruction of alcohol or alleviating a hangover. Alcohol also makes a pilot more susceptible to disorientation and hypoxia.

The FARs prohibit the pilot from performing any crew member duties within eight hours after drinking any alcoholic beverage or while under the influence or alcohol. However, due to the slow destruction of alcohol, a pilot may still be under the influence for more than eight hours after drinking a moderate amount of alcohol. An excellent rule to follow is to allow at least 12-24 hours between "bottle and blast-valve" depending on the quantity of alcohol beverage consumed.


Fatigue continues to be one of the strong hazards of flight safety, and it may not be apparent to a pilot until serious errors are made. Fatigue can be either acute (short term) or chronic (long term).

A normal occurrence of every day living, acute fatigue is the tiredness felt after long periods of physical and mental strain, including strenuous muscular activity, immobility, heavy mental workload, strong emotional pressure, monotony and lack of sleep. Consequently, coordination and alertness, necessary components of safe pilot performance, can be reduced. Acute fatigue is prevented by adequate rest and sleep, as well as regular exercise and proper nutrition.

Chronic fatigue occurs when there is not enough time for full recovery between episodes of acute fatigue. (Such as at some of the long rallies.) Performance continues to drop off, and Judgement becomes impaired so that unwarranted risks may be taken. Recovery from chronic fatigue requires a prolonged period of rest.


Not only a proper diet but how long since you have eaten can have an affect on your performance. For balloon pilots who rise early to launch at sunrise the temptation is great to skip eating breakfast until after the flight. Not eating, however, can result in a lower blood sugar during a time when you as pilot are under a great deal of stress. As the flight progresses the demand on your thinking ability and stress on your body is building. Not having eaten since the night before (probably over 12 hours ago) begins to take its toll as your Judgement becomes impaired. Even having some donuts before the flight can help. A low blood sugar during the flight can have adverse effects at the most critical phase of flight operation, approach to and landing.

Every time you go out to fly not only preflight the aerostat, preflight yourself with the I'M SAFE Checklist. After all would you fly an unsafe aircraft?

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