18 Nov 2020

Pivoting from COVID-19 cancellation to protocols for a safe event

By Maury Sullivan, Event Director, 2020 US National HAB Championship

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of balloon events worldwide. In early spring, plans were still going forward for the 2020 US National Hot Air Balloon Championship with hours of discussion and emails on the recommended protocols for a safe event with some 50 pilots, their crews and officials. Eventually we decided to cancel the 2020 US Nationals. What follows is the story behind that, along with the story of the decision to proceed with a smaller event. We also share the protocols that helped us achieve the best outcome possible. 

US Nationals in Nebraska

Scheduled for August 2020 in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, in the Great Plains region of the USA, we planned with the anticipation of the event moving forward. Working closely with the Panhandle Public Health District (PPHD), which is responsible for public health in the 12-county area surrounding Scotts Bluff, a detailed safety plan was developed. The area was dealing with a positivity testing rate of 5% and the PPHD established a questionnaire and required documentation of plans to ensure public safety for the event.

A set of COVID-19 Safety Protocols was established based on input from the local Nebraska organisers, the Event Staff and Balloon Federation of America (BFA) officials. Ultimately, The US Nationals was postponed until 2021.

Old West Balloon Fest goes forward

Balloons flying competition with the beautiful National Scottsbluff monument in the background.

However, the Scotts Bluff organiser held its regularly scheduled weekend event.  Some of the officials from the Nationals staff volunteered to assist the organiser in hosting a competitive event in conjunction with their Old West Balloon Fest

Prior to arrival, all pilots, crew, and volunteers were educated on health protocols in place for the safety of all. I am happy to report that no cases of COVID-19 resulted from the event, including the 5000-plus public in attendance (social distancing monitored) at the festival.

The rules in place for the event included COVID-19 protocols that enabled officials to apply penalties for non-compliance. Respect for the published protocols instilled confidence in the pilots and crew and provided for a safe balloon event in the midst of this pandemic. 

The protocols that were in place are shared here. We offer this as a sample of protocols that were tried and tested and worked for the Old West Balloon Fest. 

Stay safe.

COVID-19 SAFETY PROTOCOLS (from 2020 Old West Balloon Fest)

These protocols are current as of July 1, 2020. Due to the continually changing nature of COVID-19, all protocols are subject to update, as required.

All competitors and crew are reminded of the importance of health and safety protocols during the OWBF. These COVID-19 protocols have been reviewed and approved by the Panhandle Public Health District and will be enforced throughout the event.

Indoor Events

The Hampton Conference Center is the primary venue for all competition event activities. We recommend wearing a face mask while in the hotel’s public areas, but they are required for admittance to all scheduled meetings. Hand sanitiser stations will be located throughout the hotel and conference center.  We encourage their frequent and regular use, along with hand washing. Specific protocols in place include:


  • Pilots must wear face masks during the registration process.
  • Observe proper social distancing during the pilot registration process. Pilots will be asked not to congregate in groups greater than eight and extra crew or non-essential personnel will be asked to wait outside or in other areas where social distancing can be achieved.
  • The FAA IIC has agreed to review pilot and aircraft documents in advance via copies to be sent electronically. Ramp checks could still take place on a random basis.  
  • All staff working registration will be encouraged to wash hands frequently and use hand sanitiser any time there is contact with an individual.

General Briefing and all Flight Briefings

  • Every pilot will be provided printed task sheets, supplemental task data and weather sheets. We intend provide these 10 minutes before each briefing.  Official documents will be provided by staff as available before briefing starts. Entry doors will be open well in advance of any scheduled meeting, to avoid large congregations of participants awaiting entry.  
  • Only pilots, crew chiefs and essential event staff will be allowed in the meeting room.  
  • Hand sanitiser stations will be available in all briefing areas and all pilots will be provided hand sanitiser in their pilot pack along with face masks.
  • All participants and staff will be required to wear face masks during any mass gathering, including all briefings. We encourage all to bring their own mask if you have a favourite comfortable mask.
  • Pilots will be provided their supply of all event markers in a numbered plastic bag during the General Briefing. As markers are used during competition, staff assigned to roll and repackage the markers will be using hand sanitiser throughout the process. Staff working targets will have the option to use gloves.  Sanitiser will be used regularly.
  • Each pilot’s bag of recovered markers will be on the assigned space in the briefing room well in advance of any scheduled meeting.
  • Upon entry to every briefing each pilot and crew chief will have temperatures taken and logged. Please enter the briefing together (pilot and crew chief) so that compliance and be more easily documented. Each will be asked a series of questions related to COVID-19 symptoms and must be free of any symptoms in order to enter the briefing. PPHD-provided signage relating to symptoms and safety will be posted at all entrances to meetings. The PPHD requires any participant with a temperature or noted symptoms to have a COVID-19 test and self-quarantine.  
  • All event staff will also have daily temperature checks logged along with symptom responses.
  • Hotel staff must comply with PPHD sanitation guidelines and will be responsible for sanitising tables, chairs and all meeting room equipment handled during each meeting. Restrooms and hotel public areas, doors, etc. are also the responsibility of hotel staff.

Supplementary Briefings

  • Should a supplementary briefing be required at a Common Launch Area, pilots will be notified via Remind of the start time. Please only send one representative per balloon team, to avoid crowding.  

Official Notice Board

  • All notices will be posted to the Electronic Notice Board (ENB) at Watchmefly.net.

Outdoor Activities

Landowner Relations

  • Out of respect to landowners, we ask pilots and crew to approach landowners wearing a face mask.
  • Be willing to have a conversation with the landowner about all we are doing to keep pilots, crew and locals safe from COVID-19.

Propane Refuelling

  • Outdoor environments are much safer than indoor but some safety measures for common touch points are needed.
  • Refuelling crew should be kept to a minimum with social distancing maintained in the waiting line.
  • Sanitiser wipes and hand sanitiser stations will be provided at each refueling station. All equipment used in the refuelling process must be wiped down before departing

Balloon Glow, Western Nebraska Community College, Wednesday Evening

  • Set up areas will be designated with ample space.
  • Social distancing will be marked, or chalk outlined on the ground to keep the public at a safe social distance from pilot and crew.
  • Souvenir balloon cards will be distributed by the committee by handing out pre-packaged cards.

Pilot Sponsor Dinner, Thursday Evening (Optional Attendance)

  • The Weborg Center is a large facility allowing proper distancing of tables.
  • Attendance is limited to pilot and two guests. Service staff will be wearing face masks and following PPHD guidelines for proper restaurant sanitation.

Balloon Glow, The Grasslands at Five Rocks, Saturday Evening

  • This is a highly attended and popular event.
  • Face masks are strongly encouraged for all pilots and crew.
  • Set-up areas will be designated with ample space.
  • Social distancing will be marked, or chalk outlined on the ground to keep the public at a safe social distance from pilot and crew.
  • Souvenir balloon cards will be distributed by the committee by handing out pre-packaged cards.

The event organiser worked hard to establish the COVID-19 protocols and get the event approved. Conditions were approved by the PPHD, with everyone working together to make sure the public was safe. The event organiser was able to offer the public safe ‘in car’ viewing areas at the morning launches and night glows. For the record, they had 6700 in attendance for the night glow on Saturday night.

For those who did not feel safe attending, the event was live streamed on Facebook. The Old West Balloon Fest  is well attended, with people traveling from surrounding states including South Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming and the Front Range in Colorado. The economic impact to the community is substantial, with tourism being a large part of the local economy. Being able to hold the event was important and fully supported by the community. Thanks to everyone who made it possible to hold the 2020 Old West Balloon Fest.

“Little Cowboys" removed their hats during the
National Anthem as the "Stars and Stripes" balloon ascended.

Photo credit: Andrew Smith/Adventure Photography; top picture: Reflection of an Old West Balloon Fest balloon "Cross Wins" in an irrigation ditch.