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Local balloon pilot Scott Appelman says he’s happy he’ll be flying solo at this year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – without the company of drones, that is.
Appelman, president of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co., says he’s glad the Balloon Fiesta will continue to enforce a temporary flight restriction for drones attempting to fly near the park.
Appelman has had close encounters with drones in his 40 years of flying. He said the drones pose a threat to people on the balloons as well as to those on the ground.
“I think that the rules the Balloon Fiesta and the FAA have relative to drones are absolutely in the best interest of safety for the pilots as well as the crowd down below,” he said.
Balloons have much more limited maneuverability than a drone, which means there isn’t much a balloon pilot can do when coming in close contact with a drone.
Aerial Armor, one of the largest service providers for drone-detection, will help ensure skies are drone-free.
Their service and equipment is often used at special events such as concerts, sporting events and in this case, air shows. According to Brandon Lugo, director of operations, they have been working at the Balloon Fiesta since 2018.
Lugo said that among the many systems they traditionally use, radio frequency detection is the most commonly employed during this event. Their equipment includes sensors that pick up radio frequencies and they are able to track both the drone and the remote from which it’s being piloted.
“At the end of the day,” Lugo said, “our goal is all about safety.”
The sensors Aerial Armor uses can detect drones as far as 20 miles away, which makes it easy for them to discover anything within the 4-mile no-fly zone enforced during Balloon Fiesta, Lugo says.
Additionally, their equipment includes radars and cameras for regular sky-scanning.
Lugo said they’ve always been successful in passing along timely and relevant information to local law enforcement, allowing officials to approach drone flyers and stop them before an accident happens.
There are approximately 20 to 50 violations of the temporary flight restriction at Balloon Fiesta each year, he said.
“People want to get a cool picture, but unfortunately, some don’t really recognize the risks involved.” Lugo said.
Sean Wallace, the event’s director of public safety, said drone incidents fall to law enforcement, since the flight restriction is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Albuquerque Police Department will also enforce the restriction, he said.
A drone-balloon collision could cause the envelope to detach from the gondola and increase the chances of crashing, so there is a potential for injuries or death, Wallace said.
“The biggest issue is we just want to provide a safe and secure environment for all of our patrons, whether they’re on the field or if they’re flying through the airspace,” Wallace said.
Consequences for violating the temporary flight restriction range from a citation to imprisonment, depending on the nature of the violation, Wallace said.
“We’re expecting big crowds, because it’s the 50th,” Wallace said. “What we really want is people to show up, have a good time, enjoy watching the balloons launch, eat some food, hang out and enjoy your family and friends.”