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NOTE: Updated April 2016
CAPPADOCIA HOT AIR BALLOON SAFETY
What do you think, Duke? Is it still safe to do a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia?
This is a question that I get from time to time due to hot air balloon accidents that sometimes occur in Cappadocia.
I’m tempted to post something every time something happens but instead have decided to keep updating this post as the scene changes.
One of the problems that Cappadocia ballooning faces, ironically, is that so few accidents have happened. I was surprised at the rumors and hearsay going around the internet immediately after accidents in 2013-14. Random people were ignorantly spouting nonsense about pilot training and the number of balloons the area could hold and balloons going “off course”.
In July 2013 a plane crashed in San Francisco and a trained derailed in Paris. In both cases people died. In both cases the tragedies were investigated and blame was given. But as a result of these crashes very few people changed their plans to fly or take the train. These crashes happen often enough that people have grown used to them. They understand that human error happens, they generally trust the systems, and they often do not have another transportation option.
In Cappadocia, however, this is not the case. Hot air balloon rides are an expensive luxury. There was little regulation before 2014, and people are still not sure that the companies are making decisions with a “safety first” mindset. I know this because people regularly email me asking about which hot air balloon companies take safety seriously.
STATISTICS – IS IT SAFE?
But let us analyze the situation. A Cappadocia hot air balloon ride is in reality a very low-risk activity.
They have had 5 crashes in which passengers died in the last 8 years (for the 10+ years before that they had no fatal accidents but there were far less balloons in the sky). Being conservative we can say they average 50 flights a day (this is a very conservative estimate). Again a conservative estimate has them flying 250 days per year. This means that in the last 8 years there have been at least 100,000 flights. Of those there have been five fatal crashes. I would say those are pretty good odds that your hot air balloon flight will be without incident.
How about in terms of number of people? Let us guess that the flights average 10 people (I expect it is much higher than this but I am trying to guess low). This means that between 2009 and 2017 at least 1,000,000 people flew and I think seven died (see the end of this post for full list of incidents). Again, these are pretty good odds. Note that there have been 121 people reported injured in that period which sounds like a lot but is statistically still quite small.
UPDATE: Between the 2013 and 2014 crashes a very conservative estimate (using the same measurements as above) is that over 200,000 people took balloon flights in Cappadocia and one person died. That seems like a good safety record to me although I do agree that even one death is tragic, and the companies need to learn from this accident. We can hope for a risk-free life, but that is not going to happen in this world.
However, after no accidents in 2016, in 2017 flights have had more problems and the trend is concerning. I would still fly, but they have had more accidents this year, I think, then in any previous year. There was a death in February and one in April. Also, in March strong winds caused hard landings so that 49 people were injured but none died (injuries can include broken bones).
I have flown 7 times and had great times on all my hot air balloon flights. My whole family has flown and felt perfectly safe the whole time. Many of my friends and extended family members have flown. I only mention this to make it clear that I feel secure enough to fly and let my children fly.
Also, I have personally spoken with leaders from every Cappadocia hot air balloon company, and they all stressed the importance of safety. They value human life. And they value the job they love. They do not want to risk their livelihood. As this latest crash has made clear, they recognize how much mistakes hurt their business. Even if they are acting in a totally selfish, greedy way, it is in their best interest to be safe. They lose much more from a crash than they gain from a risky flight.
Does this mean no more crashes will happen? We all hope so, but realistically, we have to expect that they will. You are taking a risk when you fly in a hot air balloon. Granted it is a very low risk, much safer than many other things you do each day, but you are taking a chance.
One interesting note is that both balloons that crashed in 2009 and 2013 were piloted by foreign (not Turkish) pilots. The 2014 crash pilot was a Turkish man. The goal of this is not to disparage international pilots or any pilots for that matter. They come with much experience, are well trained, and are excellent pilots which is why the companies hire them. All the foreign pilots I know love Cappadocia and enjoy flying here. I mention this because a quick reading of posts on the internet makes it sound like the Turkish pilots are the problem. This is not true. The issue, in my opinion, is that we live in a broken world and sometimes things go wrong. Regarding Cappadocia hot air ballooning, fortunately, “sometimes” means “very rarely”.
But since we mentioned Turkish pilots, let us stay on the topic. I did some research on their training.
To pilot a hot air balloon in Cappadocia you need two licenses. The first is the Private Pilot’s License (PPL). To get this, one must take a 3 month class in which the first month is in a classroom and the second and third months involve time in a balloon. After the three months the budding pilot has 6 months to fly 100 hours. These hours are done in small balloons (1-2 people) as I understand it. This gets the student a license to fly themselves, no passengers, thus the “Private” in the title.
The next step is to get a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL). They have finished the 3 month class and the 100 hours. Next they take a 2 month course and complete another 100 hours in bigger balloons. Once they finish this second 100 hours they have to pass a test.
In total the process takes around 15 months and the pilot has flown well over 200 hours. At this point they can be hired by one of the hot air balloon companies. Generally companies will take on these neophytes and put them under another pilot in a mentoring system. As I understand it these are high requirements compared to other places, but maybe someone can confirm or refute that notion.
If you are uncomfortable flying with a new pilot, just tell the company, and they will make sure to put you with one of their more experienced pilots or pick a company that only has experienced pilots. Cappadocia can be a tricky place with changing winds so I would recommend flying with pilots with at least 5 years experience in Cappadocia.
But even with the best pilots and the safest conditions, accidents still happen. The reality is that death is rare but injuries do happen on balloon flights. The vast majority of harm happens because the passengers do not listen to their pilot. If something is going to go wrong, it usually happens at the landing. The pilots give instructions for the landing position that each guest should assume when the time comes. However, some passengers decide they would rather take a picture of the landing which cannot be done from the landing position. Thus, when the balloon hits the ground they are standing up and get jostled about. It is no surprise that these passengers get injured at times. The moral of the story is to obey your pilot and have a safe and wonderful flight.
But if all of this is still not enough to convince you that ballooning in Cappadocia is a good bet, then maybe the 2015 government regulations will help. Following is an incomplete list of the regulations:
1. NUMBER OF BALLOONS: In the past every company could fly as many balloons as they could fill. No more is that the case. Never more than 100 hot air balloons can be in the air over Cappadocia’s valleys.
2. LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY: Pilots must be at an A2 level in English and Turkish. This is not a high level, but it will mean that some pilots have to improve their English.
3. GPS: Each balloon is now required to have the latest GPS devices on board.
4. TOWER: Apparently, they are planning to build an air traffic control tower. I am not sure how much this will help, but it will give a central voice with some authority which should be helpful.
On top of this the companies are required to do a Grab or Tear or Rip Test every 3 months. This involves checking the envelope (balloon material) to see if it is becoming brittle due to the heat. They also should replace the balloons after 1000 hours of use. In Cappadocia this translates to every 4-5 years.
Will these regulations make a difference?
They have not had much impact in terms of number of accidents. Of course, we don’t know how many accidents would have occurred without the regulations.
First, I must say again that one person dying is too many. It is horrible. I am sure it was not worth the risk for those families who lost loved ones. They are surely still feeling pain and grief no matter how long it has been.
But with this said, only you know what you are willing to risk your life doing. Does a 1 in 140,000 chance work for you? Only you can say. I am okay with it. Clearly I am not alone as I see the sky full of hot air balloons every morning around my house. I think they are doing everything they can to ensure safety, but as I said, it is a decision each person has to make, and no judgment is put on those who decide to forego this luxury.
May 2009 – 1 dead, 9 injured
May 2013 – 3 dead, 23 injured
December 2014 – 1 dead, 15 injured
June 2015 – 18 injuries, no deaths
February 2017 – 1 dead
March 2017 – 49 injured, no deaths (3 balloons crashed due to strong winds)
April 2017 – 1 dead, 7 injured
NOTE: I receive nothing for writing this post from any balloon company or from anyone for that matter. I read a lot of nonsense on the internet and wanted to try to bring some perspective to the conversation.
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