When the balloon goes up

Flight International Comment, 8 October

Brazil’s legendary passion for celebration might not ordinarily be considered an air transport safety matter, but filings to the country’s accident investigation commission suggest otherwise.
Every three days, on average, pilots are submitting airprox reports concerning encounters with balloons to a dedicated site. Avianca A320 pilots took evasive action in São Paulo because the aircraft’s nose was on a collision course with a balloon on final approach.
“It is a known problem, but very dangerous,” stated one Emirates 777 crew. “Some of these carry big gas bottles as their fuel source.”
While the crew of a TAM A319 which hit a balloon out of Rio de Janeiro undoubtedly failed to deal ­effectively with the resulting unreliable airspeed ­situation, the training aspect is a separate problem.
Brazilian investigators estimate that hitting even a small balloon would equate to a 2t strike at typical terminal airspace speeds, while a larger one could deliver a devastating 100t impact. Even if a balloon is released in good weather, they add, there is little to stop it ­drifting into areas of low visibility.
TAM’s incident probably won’t be the last. With the football World Cup just eight months away – and the Olympic Games in Rio to follow – it’s hard to believe the authorities will be able to keep the carnival ­separate from the atmosphere.

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