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Safety, for you and the balloons

September 29, 2016

Ken Sklute

This article was originally published on November 2, 2015 and has been updated to include current product information.


It is so exciting watching colorful hot air balloons inflate. At some of my earlier experiences at Ballooning events, I would run from balloon to balloon as crews laid out their fabrics in sausage-like configurations. Hearing the sound of the 5 or 8 horsepower fan coming to life meant that we only had to wait a few minutes to peek inside the mouth of the envelope, as air mixed up the backlit fabric and created a variety of shapes and colors. Shortly afterwards, the envelope was open and full, ready to add heat from the powerful propane burners attached to the top of the gondola. It is very easy to get lost in the flurry of excitement.

Taking photographs around the aircraft requires etiquette on the field as you wander from balloon to balloon. Never assume that you can go anywhere you want without first asking the pilot or a crew member. There are many vantage points you can use to create magnificent imagery, but if you come near the balloon to photograph and would like to look inside of the mouth, please ask permission. You will most likely be warned to take care when close to:

  • The delicate balloon fabric.
  • The many Kevlar lines that connect the envelope to the basket.
  • The inflator fan that moves huge volumes of air into the envelope.
  • The crown line at the top of the balloon.
  • The tie-off lines that secure the aircraft to the vehicle or trailer.
  • The trailer. Some people climb on it to get above the throngs of spectators.

Never touch, lift or step on the fabric for any reason. This can damage the aircraft.

Special care must be taken if you want to place your camera for a look inside the envelope. The Kevlar cables that lift the fabric have small burrs on them that can cut your skin, so be careful touching these lines.

Because the balloon burners use propane as fuel, there should be no smoking anywhere on the launch field, especially around the balloon basket, which holds about 30 gallons of fuel. Also, the balloon fabric is made of a rather lightweight rip stop nylon that is very sensitive to heat. Tossing a lit cigarette could put holes in the fabric and ground the balloon.

The gasoline powered inflator fan is one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment during inflation. The fan draws air through the protective cage and pushes it into the envelope. The suction that the fan creates can draw your loose jacket or long scarf into the fan, so do not to get too close to it. Additionally, I would suggest not standing alongside the fan in case there is a failure of the propeller.

As you wander from balloon to balloon, please be mindful of the lines that the crews have attached to the basket to keep it on the ground, in case of wind. You could possibly trip and fall, damaging your camera in the act. In similar fashion, you might not see the 85' crown line that a crew member holds to steady the balloon from the top and may accidentally "clothes line" yourself as you walk by.

If you would like to stand on the balloon trailer to get a loftier perspective, ask the pilot’s permission before climbing on it. Please take extra care when doing so as there are many things on the trailer that could harm you.

Stand clear of the balloon once the Zebra (officials) give the pilot permission to launch. You do not want to be in the way of the moving balloon.

Mornings at ballooning events can be rather chilly; consider dressing in layers so as the landscape warms you can remain comfortable with the rising temperatures throughout the day.

I'd like to offer a final thought if you plan on bringing a tripod, monopod or selfie-stick onto the launch field. Most people are looking up at the aerostats as they take to the skies, unaware of potential hazards as they make their way across the field. Try to prevent people from accidentally tripping across your outstretched tripod legs or other equipment as they move through the morning's darkness.

With this awareness of the hazards and some reasonable precautions and prevention efforts, you will be able to enjoy and capture the event without any damage to the balloons, yourself, or your equipment.

Ken Sklute
Ken Sklute

Ken Sklute of Tempe, AZ., has been working with his passions of photographing people and drag racing for over 42 years.

Ken Sklute

Ken Sklute has been honored as one of Canon's Explorers of Light, a designation shared by several top photographers worldwide. Ken has enjoyed a diverse career photographing people, professional sports, architecture, weddings and landscapes. Ken spends much of his time photographing, teaching and lecturing both nationally and internationally.

Ken Sklute began his photographic career capturing 200 mph race cars in New York at an early age. He soon moved into the wedding and portrait industry, working for a volume wedding studio for three years before moving into working for different independently-owned studios. Ken bought his first studio in 1983 in New York, working at the finer locations throughout the New York metropolitan area. He chose to relocate to Phoenix, Arizona in 1996 in order to be out in the landscape of the beautiful desert Southwest and to enjoy the Phoenix wedding market.

During Ken’s 42 year professional photography career, he has accomplished the title of “Photographer of the Year” in 32 out of 38 years in the states of New York, Arizona and California. Ken is a PPA Master of Photography and Photographic Craftman. In addition, Ken has been awarded 14 Kodak Gallery Awards, the Kodak Gallery Elite award, WPPI Grand Award for Weddings and 15 Fuji Masterpiece awards, amongst many other awards.

Some of Ken’s clients have been the National Hot Rod Association, U.S. Army, Sports Illustrated, Oakley, Associated Press, National Dragster, Epson, Kodak, Newsday, as well as most of the photographic industry trade magazines.

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