Up, up and away!

The Bristol Balloon Fiesta is now in its 37th year and is Europe’s largest hot air balloon festival.

Running from 6-9 August, the Fiesta will welcome over 500,000 visitors over the four days. Over 100 balloons will take part and as the event is in close proximity to Bristol Airport, we have to carefully plan and prepare for the occasion far in advance to ensure there is minimal impact to the normal operations of the airport.

I’ve worked in the air traffic control tower at Bristol for the past 28 years, and have been responsible for overseeing the Fiesta preparation for around eight years. There is a very active ballooning community around the airfield, and as a team we have a lot of experience working with them. In fact, we have a piece of airspace to the north of the Airport where balloons can be flown safely on a day-to-day basis. If Balloonists wish to fly outside of that airspace, they will call us for clearance, like any other aircraft.

The Fiesta has grown dramatically since it first began in 1979 and each year can be slightly different because there may be changes to the fixed wing and parachute displays.

As a general rule, we need to consider four different elements when planning for the Fiesta:

1. Ballooning
2. Fixed Wing Displays
3. Parachute Displays
4. Helicopters

As a first step, we discuss the event schedule with the organisers so we can look at any special procedures that need to be put in place to accommodate the activities.

During the event we transmit an ATIS (Aerodrome Terminal Information Service) message that provides information on the event to pilots flying from/to Bristol and within the local area.

Bristol Balloon Fiesta by jonbgem

Bristol Balloon Fiesta by jonbgem

A NOTAM is published prior to the event that informs pilots of the activity and the CAA distributes an Airspace Coordination Notice (ACN) which includes details about altitude restrictions, for example.

For the controllers at Bristol Airport, we publish a Temporary Operating Instruction (TOI) two weeks before the Fiesta; this sets out the specific preparation and procedures in place for air traffic controllers to follow.

On the morning of a balloon launch, the organisers will contact the Watch Manager to get the latest weather forecast. Balloonists are then briefed by the event organisers on the prevailing weather conditions and the effect they may have on routes and places to land.

As there could be well over a hundred balloons launching around the same time, the first and last Balloonists will contact the control tower so we know exactly when they start and finish. Generally the Balloonists will operate below 2000ft.  Any wishing to fly above this altitude will make a request to Bristol ATC and receive an individual clearance. This ensures that we can provide the correct separation distances and traffic information to commercial airlines.


Bristol control tower

Fixed wing displays are permitted to display within a two nautical mile radius of the Fiesta site and up to 2,500ft. They operate using Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and will call Bristol Approach (radar) when they are en route. We keep commercial aircraft at least two miles clear of the landing site and 1,000ft above the display.

We manage and coordinate parachute displays so that they safely fit in with the Airport’s operation and they can operate up to 5,000ft. A separation distance of at least three nautical miles as well as 1,000ft vertically is required for this.

Helicopters used as pleasure flights during the Fiesta are popular. These flights tend to stay in the local vicinity and stay within two designated routes no higher than 1,500ft.

Some of my colleagues take part in ballooning and from time to time we host visits to the tower for from local Balloonists in order for them to gain a greater understanding of air traffic control as well as the importance of communicating with us.

As a result of our experience other airport’s often consult with us on how we plan for this event.

It’s a pleasure to work on such a unique and famous balloon festival and I hope you get the chance to see it for yourself some day!

[Header image: Bristol Balloon Fiesta 2009 by Andy Powell via Flickr]


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