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THE MAGAZINE OF AIR MOBILITY COMMAND

What Goes Up May Come Down

(Flaming HOT and in the Wrong Place)

By MR. MONTE NACE, Staff Writer

We live crazy busy lives in a crazy busy time. Few of us are immune to family stress from elders, youngsters, or partners. Some of us work in environments that are a bit more stressful than we would like. Most of us feel social pressure to keep pace by buying more things (which can mean working more hours in stressful jobs).

It makes sense, then, that we might hope to find some temporary peace—a fleeting moment of solace—watching a sky lantern celebration. Are you wondering what a sky lantern is and why you should care?

Sky lanterns are, as the name implies, lanterns that float in the sky. People typically launch them in dark conditions, such as just after dusk, which makes them that much more beautiful. Even watching them on television or in online videos can be hypnotic, as they emit a warm glow against a night sky. You can tell that observers and participants often single one out and watch as it goes higher, farther, higher still until they lose sight of it amid the crowd of other lanterns.

These free-spirited little beacons of light are often associated with happiness or hope. For example, some couples use them to celebrate a wedding. Families with a deceased loved one often use them as a memorial of sorts or in charity fundraisers for diseases like cancer. How can something so calming to watch be so dangerous?

The problem with sky lanterns is that they are made from paper and are powered by a flammable component such as a candle or a fuel cell. If the words “paper” and “flammable” in the same sentence sound dangerous, you are well on your way to understanding the problem. These lanterns work kind of like a hot air balloon except they are much less predictable and are virtually uncontrollable.

When sky lanterns fall—and they eventually do—they can obviously ignite a fire on rooftops or lawns. Even when launched over water, the boats and boat docks below can be set ablaze. (And do we really need more trash in our lakes, rivers, and oceans?) Also, ranchers don’t appreciate the potential danger if the metal fragments are baled into hay, damaging equipment and/or causing a slow, agonizing death if consumed by livestock.

Some states or municipalities have already banned sky lanterns. In others—Tennessee, for example—only licensed professionals can operate them. I found at least one company that travels the country (and goes to a few international locations) conducting light “festivals” using sky lanterns. They advertise that their products are non-flammable and biodegradable, and they have a “crew” of people picking up debris as it falls.

In October 2017, a sky lantern caused burn injuries to 15 people, including two children, and destroyed four houses in India. In July 2017, an incident damaged a facility built for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, even though lanterns were outlawed there in 1998.

The devices are equally dangerous and equally prevalent on American soil. In April of this year, a Minnesota fire chief found a charred paper sky lantern on the roof of his home—despite the fact that it is illegal to sell or use them in that state. In 2016, hundreds of sky lanterns released north of Denver, Colorado, landed five miles away on dry grassland, spooking landowners and their livestock. Also that year, a launch in support of domestic violence victims led to air traffic being rerouted at an airfield in Anchorage, Alaska, when lanterns appeared in the flight path. Six years ago, in 2012, a Michigan family swerved off the road and crashed into a tree to avoid hitting sky lanterns. In 2011, 800 acres burned in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when a lantern torched dry brush.

In all fairness, sky lanterns sometimes hold a religious or cultural purpose for users. Most states in America, however, have banned their use, while some municipalities specify the lanterns be tethered or tied down so they do not float away. Other locations require a special permit or license. It is important to remember the potential for danger, though; a “professional” company conducted the 2016 Denver event mentioned earlier. Granted, there was no large-scale incident due to the event, but there could have been.

If sky lanterns are illegal in so many places, why does it even warrant space on these pages?

  1. These things can travel higher up and farther away than intended. If they are legal in your area, you may not be interested in attending a launch, but that does not mean you will not encounter one. They can pose a danger, whether lit or spent. Would you want to run over something with metal wire while mowing your yard or driving down the highway?
  2.  If sky lanterns are illegal where you live, you are not immune to potential danger. Sadly, they are available online at many well-known retailers’ sites. My guess is they are probably on the shelves at some brick-and-mortar stores, too. People who want them will get them, and they will likely use them carelessly. Simply be aware and be proactive in reporting their use.

As a responsible Airman, you probably know much more than I do about what can go wrong with objects aloft. But maybe today I’ve enlightened you a little about one object I hope you never encounter—in the air or on the ground.