Aviation safety issues and actions

Balloon visual meteorological conditions

Issue number: AO-2018-027-SI-01
Who it affects: All balloon operators of charter flights
Issue owner: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Transport function: Aviation: Other
Background: Investigation Report AO-2018-027
Issue release date: 11 August 2020
Current issue status: Open – Safety action pending

Safety issue description

The visual flight rules permitted balloons to arrive and depart in foggy conditions without assurance that sufficient visibility existed to see and avoid obstacles.

Proactive action

Action number: No number provided
Action organisation: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Date: 11 August 2020
Action status: Released

Response to safety issue and/or Proactive safety action taken by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority

In May 2020, in response to the draft ATSB report, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) stated:

CASA expects operators conducting operations in reduced visibility to have procedures to assess whether the conditions are safe in the planned operational area.

CASA advised that it is currently drafting the [Civil Aviation Safety Regulations] Part 131 [Manual of Standards] MOS and related Advisory Circular (AC). The MOS will prescribe the requirements for flight preparation and weather conditions. As a Safety Issue has been identified, the AC will further support the MOS with recommendations on Operational Procedures for these special conditions.

CASA subsequently provided the ATSB with an extract of the draft AC, titled Flight preparation – weather assessment, which they intend to publish in 2020, prior to the implementation of Part 131. Regarding the reduced visibility rule, the draft AC stated:

Pilots preparing to conduct a flight in areas and in conditions where fog limiting visibility is present, or which may form later, should conduct a risk assessment for the planned flight.

Further, it stated that:

it is highly recommended that pilots and operators exercise this permission with appropriate caution and only where sufficient flight preparation has taken place.

The draft AC included the warning that ‘landing in fog can…be very dangerous and is not recommended’ and that there is ‘a long history of pilots and operators being caught out by changes in the fog that were not predicted.’


ATSB comment:

The ATSB appreciates CASA’s efforts in drafting the AC extract and notes that it contains useful information on the hazards of low visibility balloon operations. However, the ATSB is concerned that the value of the contained information may be limited as an AC is guidance material and not required to be read or followed by the balloon sector.

Additionally, while the draft AC highlights the inherent risk of low-visibility operations and advises individuals and operators to assess and manage that risk, there is limited detail on how to conduct such an assessment.

Additionally, balloon operators are not required to have a safety manager or safety management system, and will not be required to do so under the initial implementation of the proposed Part 131 regulations. Therefore, the emphasis in the draft AC on operators and pilots to conduct risk assessments, is not supported by a requirement to have appropriately‑trained personnel and safety management practices.

Fundamentally, the ATSB remains concerned that, given the climb performance/profile of balloons, the current visual meteorological criteria for operation below 500 ft above ground level does not provide assurance that sufficient visibility exists to see and avoid obstacles.

This contrasts with all other current VMC criteria, which provide this assurance without any further required assessment or mitigation.

Safety recommendation

Action number: AO-2018-027-SR-044
Action organisation: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Date: 11 August 2020
Action status: Released

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau recommends that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) undertake a risk assessment of the reduced visibility exemption to the visual flight rules for balloons, to determine whether it assures an adequate level of safety. Furthermore, that CASA publishes any required mitigating factors identified from the risk assessment that are necessary to operate safely in the reduced visibility conditions.

Last update 11 August 2020