Hunting Feral Hogs From Hot Air Balloons in Texas — What Could Go Wrong? Plenty, Say the Pilots.

A new Texas law makes it legal to hunt feral hogs and coyotes using hot air balloons.
A new Texas law makes it legal to hunt feral hogs and coyotes using hot air balloons. Photo by Fitz Crittle/Flickr
An odd piece of Texas legislation due to go into effect September 1 allowing hunters to shoot feral hogs and coyotes from hot air balloons appears to have neglected input from one key constituency: the pilots themselves.

“It seems like one of the most ill-conceived pieces of legislation I’ve ever heard of,” said Phil Bryant, a hot air balloon pilot and owner of Ballooning Adventures of Texas, a full-service balloon company in Houston, when asked about it by the Houston Press.

Bryant’s reaction mirrored the response of multiple hot air balloon enthusiasts who were confused by the motivation, implementation and, in particular, the logistics of Texas House Bill 3535. All noted they were never asked for input from Republican State Congressman Mark Keough, who sponsored the bill this spring. The law passed unopposed, a rare occurrence in this year’s legislature.

Feral hogs are an actual terror in Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates about 1.5 million wild pigs roam nearly every section of the state. Ugly, hairy and capable of growing up to 400 pounds, these animals reproduce at high rates and are responsible for $50 million in agricultural damage each year.

Past attempts at curbing the hog population have included the “pork chopper” bill, which allows licensed hunters to use helicopters to shoot feral pigs, as well as a brief attempt at using a pesticide called warfarin before the company providing the poison backed out because of the threat of a lawsuit.

So in some ways, the progression to hot air balloons make sense. Except that Bryant and others had issues with the feasibility of hunting from the crafts.

For one, balloons aren’t maneuverable, explained Joe Reynolds, a private pilot out of Austin. “Balloons follow air currents; they’re not steered,” he said in an email. Following hogs is likely out of the question, as is sticking to the land boundaries of the owner below. And forget stopping to retrieve the carcass after the hog’s been killed.

“Once you tag a few pigs, you’re going to run back and find them again?” asked Bryant.

Additionally, cruising altitude for balloons is at least 500 feet. Dogs could pass as hogs at that height. When Chris Britt takes hunters on tours with Helibacon, a helicopter hog-hunting operation out of Bryan, he says the choppers will sometimes be as low as 12 feet to the ground to make a kill.

“(In a hot air balloon), you might as well have done it from a space shuttle,” Britt said.

Finding an insurance backer could be a problem as well. Rob Schantz, who runs one of the few hot air ballooning insurance agencies from his office in Jacksonville, and insures about 1,000 pilots across the country, said his agency will exclude hunting from coverage in its policies.

Keough, whose office did not respond to repeated requests for comment before publication, told the Texas Observer this April that his bill was meant as another means to control the feral hog population while also, he told the Texas Tribune, creating a new industry in the state. He also claimed that air balloon hunting is “far safer” than hunting out of a helicopter.

Governor Greg Abbott signed the law in early June, despite protests from Republican State Representative John Cyrier. Cyrier raised questions about lax regulations for balloon pilots after a crash in his hometown of Lockhart last summer killed 16 people. An investigation following the crash revealed the pilot, Alfred Nichols, had a history of prison time for drug- and alcohol-related convictions and had consumed a cocktail of drugs before the deadly flight last July.

The FAA does not require a medical certificate for licensed balloon operators, unlike for airplane pilots. Still, the law will go into effect this September, although it’s unclear how many will take advantage of hot air balloon hog hunting.

“I’m a high-powered master shooter. I get guns. I enjoy guns,” Bryant said. “I just don’t see what’s to be gained by this.”

Thinking about
hog hunting from a hot air balloon? Tell us about it. Contact Joseph Fanelli at [email protected].
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.