The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it was — at least for now — backing off a previous ruling that required hot air balloons to carry an advanced onboard piece of electronic tracking equipment.
The ADS-B equipment (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) sends out a signal allowing air traffic controllers and other aircraft to locate a balloon in flight, in addition to helping keep aircraft separated.
The earlier ruling required that the ADS-B equipment be incorporated into the permanent onboard electrical system of the balloon when flying over Albuquerque’s Class C airspace, which includes most of the city, particularly a large swath over which balloons regularly fly during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
The rule was confusing because hot air balloons do not have permanent onboard electrical systems, so technically the specific version of the ADS-B equipment, as well as installation and support for it, did not exist, Scott Appelman, founder, president and CEO of Albuquerque-based Rainbow Ryders, said Tuesday. Rainbow Ryders is the nation’s largest hot air balloon ride company,with 46 balloons and 100 employees.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro, in an email response to the Journal, said Tuesday that “no balloon pilot will have their operations interrupted” while the agency reviews a safety risk panel report and as long as pilots have a signed letter of agreement allowing them to fly in Class C airspace without ADS-B equipment.
If such a letter of agreement is nearing expiration “balloon pilots should contact the closest air traffic control tower to begin the renewal process,” Molinaro said.
He added that “no final decision has been made on equipage while we review the safety risk panel report.”
The original ruling became effective Jan. 1, 2020, but was not enforced actively until September 2021. Amid protests from Balloon Fiesta officials, members of the ballooning community, the mayor and New Mexico’s congressional delegation, the FAA granted temporary waivers for the 2021 and 2022 Balloon Fiestas, pending a more permanent resolution.
Former Balloon Fiesta operations director and current executive director, Sam Parks, had said at the time that the FAA rule was likely formulated with fixed-wing aircraft in mind.
The current reprieve “allows us to do what we have already been doing,” Appelman said. “It’s too bad we had to go through the challenge, but I’m glad we have a direction going forward.”