737 Comes Within 100 Feet Of Advertising Balloon


Passengers on the left side of a GOL Linhas Areas Boeing 737 MAX got more than they expected for a view when an advertising balloon came within 100 feet of the left wing. Airlive reported the aircraft was in its final descent for Rio De Janeiro from Porto Alegre on Dec. 17 when the helium balloon with a banner attached swept past. The incident was reported and the plane continued to an uneventful landing. In July, an airline crew reported seeing a large balloon hoisting a Brazilian flag at 35,000 feet, Airlive reported.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. You’ve got to be kidding, only one?? I flew in to Rio in the mid to late 80s in DC-10-30 and you always had to dodge between 6 or 10 balloons. At that time there was a club, put them up early in morning and they would drift out to sea. Either the company or CALPA contacted their air ministry, no luck it seamed like the Minister was a member of the club or friends with member of same. On take-off it was more interesting as you were assigned a departure route to go over to Sao Paulo and were given permission to dodge the balloons. They were not little weather type but at least 10 – 15 feet in diameter. You sure needed a good look out. Merry Christmas everyone. Oh forgot, we would usually encounter them between 10 & 15,000.

  2. How does an unpowered balloon “come within 100 feet” of an airliner???

    The balloon is unpowered, and can’t be steered—Unless it is a dirigible. The problem is with the powered aircraft—not the balloon—see the FARs as to “what categories give way to whom.”

    • Nope – the problem is releasing unmanned ballons near/in high traffic air corridors. The FARs do NOT apply to unmanned ballons.

      • And you are correct, regarding unmanned balloons.

        My observation was the way the story was written–that it “came within 100′ of an airliner.” All relative motion falls with the aircraft, not with the balloon–manned or unmanned–as the balloon has no way of steering towards or away from an aircraft.

        I fly jets, turboprops, helicopters, seaplanes, gliders, and yes–I have two Raven balloons–we get this all the time–“that balloon almost hit me!” The complainants rarely grasp the concept that the balloon cannot “Hit” a moving aircraft–all relative movement is on the part of the aircraft–not the balloon.

        • All true – but an unmanned balloon really has no business being used/launched where it could drift into known traffic patterns/routes – most especially near an airport where avoidance maneuvers could be dangerous.

          • Again–all true–and I would agree that unmanned and unregistered balloons should NOT be launched where they can go into navigable airspace–but we are dealing with non-aviators here–and there is no limit on stupidity. My comment was on the description of the event–“came within 100′ of an airliner”–that would presuppose that it was somehow steered into that position–something not possible. Perhaps it is semantics, but it could have been written better. As an airport manager, I’ve had the experience of Private Pilots outraged that “That balloon almost hit me!” (both involved manned and unmanned balloons).

            Short of requiring an automatic valve that would deflate the balloon upon reaching a certain altitude above the launch point, I don’t see a solution to the problem.

      • dbier – I think you need to take a look at 14 CFR Part 101 Subpart D, that seems to address unmanned free balloons. BTW probably moot since the incident happened in Brazil.

    • [email protected], while it’s true that balloons cannot translate horizontally (except as driven by wind), one CAN change altitude, and thus enter airspace forbidden to balloons that was far above when it was launched. Without a clearance from ATC, it has no right to be there, should not be there, and pilots are not often looking for traffic while descending in Class A airspace. Even in airspace available to balloons, and even if the balloon is not closer to the clouds than legally allowed, a fast-moving jet can descend out of a cloud base or out of the side of one and be suddenly confronted with a balloon. I forgot the standards, especially for high altitude, but one mile is not very far when you’re covering six or seven of them per minute. The time available to see and avoid a balloon at that distance is minimal, if not inadequate… A high-G turn or pull up would be required.

      Airlines being averse to paying for supernumerary personnel, the number of eyeballs available for balloon watch during busy times is slim to none. As they planned and programmed the FMS with crossing altitudes and routes for the STAR, these pilots were probably not looking outside the cockpit much, especially while still in the Class A, where everyone is required to have an ATC clearance.

      Mention of hogh-G evasive maneuvers being absent from the article, it would at this point seem to be only God’s Providence that the balloon wasn’t directly in the jet’s path! Double flame out / dead stick landing, anyone?

  3. How many remember back in 1982 when Larry Walters attached weather ballons to his lawn chair , cut the rope tied to his truck and ended up at 16,000 feet over Los Angelos sitting in his lawn chair. Larry was the first stealth pilot. Air traffic control could not track his balloons and lawn chair but he was spotted by airlines flying by. Los Angelos center : This USAir 111 there is a guy in a lawn chair at 16,000 feet. Roger USAir. Call us on the ground for your drug test. Larry was no fool. He knew he would have to return to earth so he brought along his BB gun to shoot the balloons. Shot out 3 ballons because it was getting cold and hard to breath but then dropped his BB gun. It was not tethered to his chair, so Larry lost his BB gun. Larry wasn’t tethered either. No seat belt nor should harness. If you go to the Smithstonian , you might want to see Larry’s chair. When he did return to earth the police were there , but had a hard time figuring out which balloon laws he broke. Ended up paying a $1500 fine for operating without a ballloon license. Everybody loved Larry. There are you tubes about his aviation accomplishments over Los Angelos.

    • He was a celebrity for sure. Even many of the professional grinch class were caught cracking a tiny smile before launching into their tirades against foolish rule breakers.

  4. I encountered one of these 10 years ago on the PIRA5 arrival into Sao Paolo between layers at 9000′! We had to swerve off the arrival course (as did the AA B-767 ahead of us, they swerved left, we swerved right). I got a good look at the balloon and it’s trailing banner (and took a pic). It wasn’t any mere 15 feet in diameter! Judging by the relative speed of passage, it must have been 200′ tall over all. We reported this to GRU approach and the controller shrugged “So what, she’s there every Sunday morning”. It seems that the cathedral in Sao Paolo releases a balloon towing a banner with the virgin Mary on it every Sunday AM (whatever the weather) and just lets it drift over the city with the wind. Our complaint and ASAP report merely resulted in this being noted on the GRU ATIS broadcasts from then on. Sooner or later…

  5. Mr. Niles;

    This needs correcting.

    As has already been mentioned the balloon did not “come within 100 feet…” and I’d bet it also didn’t sweep past a 737. I mean technology is advancing at lightning rates, but I’ve not yet heard of a balloon that can pass a 737 – if there’s a balloon that can I’m sure that would be worth an article here too.

    Seriously Mr. Niles, you’re better than this. I’m not trying to be mean or put you down, but this is not something a professional writer should have missed. Journalism is dying a rapid death. Please reapply yourself to maintain the high standard to which your previous efforts conform.