Bad Habits – Hot Air Balloon Instruction Series

An instructor in any discipline strives to teach the proper fundamentals of that activity so that student can excel from there or at a minimum, only digress to some acceptable level. The law of Primacy states that the technique that is learned first learned will stay the longest and is first to be remembered. This is why proper hot air balloon instruction is so crucial. For example, glossing over short burn finesse control while contouring in balloon flight will leave the student grasping for control in other facets of ballooning. Acquired skill at the fundamental level is what makes a successful balloon flight possible.

Unfortunately, the last line is not always true. Balloon pilots flying in areas with abundant large landing areas and good access can easily fall into a cycle of  inflating the balloon and deciding to land in the last 10 minutes of the flight with very little planning or steering in between. In this type of flying area, a successful balloon flight can be accomplished the vast majority of the time by a decent inflation, keeping the balloon off of the ground obstacles and delaying one burn enough to descend to the ground for a landing. This may be a slight oversimplification but this style of flying creates horrendous habits that are hard to break even with quality instruction. I find this scenario most often in the 150+ – hour private pilot wanting to go on to the commercial level. This type of ballooning is most often accompanied by liberal use of the vent on approaches (little control) and “I always clear the power lines by a large margin” safety approach. In view of their lack of control, it is quite understandable why these pilots choose to clear wires by such a margin. Unfortunately, in many situations it is much safer to clear wires by 5’-10’ and make the landing than to fly on and deal with low fuel, sunset, or more congestion.

Why do balloon pilots fall into this mindset? I think there is a tendency for newer pilots to not push the envelope. New things are happening every flight and they are happy to come down safely every time. Why risk flying in new places or going into tighter landing spots. Also, ballooning is a social sport and passengers certainly distract from the pilot’s ability to concentrate enough to fly a precise flight plan.

If you are one of these pilots described above or are honored with the challenge of instructing one, what do you do? I often compare balloon training to golf. It doesn’t really compare but I can relate and sympathize with the student more if I consider my golf skills. A bad habit in golf is often bending your left arm or not shifting your weight etc. I have tried to apply this cause/effect to flying a balloon but can’t quite pull off the transition. For instance, excessive use of the vent on an approach is a poor habit. It is a crutch for lack of control. If the balloon instructor eliminates the use of the vent while flight training, the student is unlikely to improve his/her approaches without some other additional training (i.e. burner control). This brings the student back to the fundamentals. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to improving a student’s finesse control  while contouring or making an approach in a hot air balloon. Even after stressing short burns for precise control for consecutive days, I find many students reverting back to combinations of short, medium and long burns on contour during the checkride or “bad days”. Once reminded (sorry, not on the checkride) to use short burns, there is immediate improvement. This is one of the few simple habit changes that I can think of that produces a rapid improvement.

The intent of this article is to stress the importance of balloon pilots not to fall into the lowest level of attention necessary to fly a balloon successfully in their respective area. By a successful balloon flight I mean one that is safe, the balloon equipment is easily retrieved, and it leaves no landowner discontent. If the weather deteriorates or the wind takes a bad turn, precision skills can’t always be summoned if the pilot has not kept “tuned up”.  It’s at times like these that an overly relaxed pilot will pay the price.

What can a balloon pilot with “the bad habit” (minimum focus on flight operations) do to incorporate good habits. There are many essehntial good habits that should be in place during a flight. Following are a few of them:

  1. Inflate the balloon in the middle of the launch area (if available) as opposed to near a fence line or obstacle. One day that 90 degree windshift won’t cost you a flight and a repair bill.
  2. Once leveled off after takeoff, evaluate precisely which way you are going (Point your arm if necessary) Ask yourself some questions. Do you like where you will be in ½ hr, 1 hr?
  3. Evaluate your steerage. Can the surface wind direction take the balloon to larger fields downwind? Perhaps away from a known landowner problem or planted fields?
  4. Make your plan and fly it. This will take concentration and will be tedious at first. The good news is that this technique will develop some skills that will make take most of the uncertainty out of flying a balloon. Confidence will go straight up as you begin to get where you decided to go by navigationg the balloon. Also, when you have a long term target in mind, you will notice wind changes immediately which allow for adjustments if necessary.
  5. If you see something better, don’t hesitate to change your plan. Be sure to stick to the new plan until something better comes along and you make a decision to change again. Don’t let the balloon fly you. Make a decision (even if it’s wrong) and fly the balloon where you want it to go within the limits of the wind.
  6. Practice dipping the basket and balloon envelope as low as you can between treelines or similar barriers (not powerlines). The exciting stuff happens in the very low spots. (i.e. tight landings, turns, slowdowns) Contour your balloon with precision on the front and backside of every obstacle you can safely and legally go over. It’s important to transition from the front to the back smoothly in order to really understand the dynamics of the hot air balloon balloon. It is understood that these exercises are to accomplished without the use of a vent and the contouring should be done with short burns. Your long term flight plan should not be compromised either. Set parameters for the most “left” or “right” you can give up during the practice sessions and still maintain winds to the target area.
  7. Have an general area (not necessarily a field)  picked out for landing when fuel is at about 50%.


If balloon students were instructed and current balloon pilots reminded to implement some of these habits during every flight, the mean skill level of  balloon pilots in the US would soar. Let’s make an effort to break “the bad habit” and make these balloons go where we balloon pilots want to go.