“Steering” the Balloon

The following is an article dedicated to one of the most common questions asked of a balloonist. “Can you steer that thing”? My personal answer is usually “yes and no”.
It still amazes me how precisely a skilled pilot can steer a balloon when all you have, essentially, is a bubble floating around in the air. However, after careful analysis, the precision demonstrated by successful competitive pilots and those pilots who always seem to land in good places, is quite achievable with the development of certain skills.

One of the essential elements of precision steering is the ability to accurately determine which way you are going at any given instant. In my opinion, this is the most difficult of the necessary skills to acquire. I constantly ask my students which way they perceive the balloon to be going. Invariably, a hand goes out with a gesture not unlike someone trying to clear a path in a crowd. My next request is for them to point. Amidst great focus on the part of the student, I usually see a limp finger move slowly towards the general direction of travel. After several flights and constant quizzing, the student will point quickly when asked. This first direction will usually not be accurate. After being asked to reassess, a new track will be pointed out. On the third try, the finger is usually very close to the actual direction. Unfortunately, the balloon is most often descending and in another wind by that time and the argument is made that the direction of travel is currently what the student originally depicted.

There are several methods of accurately evaluating the balloon’s direction at any given moment. It first requires that the pilot be situated in the front basket relative to its general direction.  Secondly, the pilot must glance downward across a fixed part of the basket (siderails, upright) to the ground. At this point, it is important that the navigator to focus diligently for several seconds with one eye on the siderail and one eye on the ground track. It is important to “deduct” any error generated by basket spin as that will throw your line way off. This focus must last at least 3 full seconds (preferably longer) to detect the subtle movement. When the pilot thinks that he/she has determined a track, he/she must visually pan slowly up the projected track until a landmark in the distance is found that lies exactly along the suspected route of travel.  Once this landmark is established mentally, it’s time to do it all over again. Invariably, the second track evaluation will be different than the first. It is very important to evaluate which side of the “red barn” you are approaching, not simply the “red barn area”. The third evaluation will usually reveal the ground track fairly accurately if the proper focus had been given to each try. Unfortunately, this exercise requires such extreme focus to provide precise results that the balloon often goes out of controlled level flight thereby changing direction and making the above results meaningless. Excellent balloon control skills are also a must in order to steer precisely.

Once a ground track and downwind landmark are verified by repeated panning as described above and the balloon is still in level flight, the pilot should focus on the landmark. It is from this position that most in-depth flight planning and execution is done. It is much easier to notice minute changes in direction immediately if you focus on a landmark that is on a line precisely downwind. If this is done correctly, subsequent panning should reveal very tiny fluctuations in direction with minor altitude changes or at least predict the drift tolerances of the “same level” winds.

This is also the vantage from which my personal “fly by direction” technique is implemented. This technique first requires reassessing direction until I have positioned my balloon in a wind that is going directly to my target (or desired landmark). At that point, I assess where I am in the “steer zone”. The steer zone is that altitude where below you is left turn for instance and above you is more right. At your current level, you are going straight relative to above and below you. At this point, you simply have to focus on your target. If you find yourself on a track slightly left, you ease upward until the line straightens up. If right, you ease down, anticipating the slight turn left so you can stop the balloon at the appropriate altitude. This “fly by direction” allows the pilot to focus on just one key item (landmark), thus reducing other distractions and brain clutter You never have to consult your altimeter. Depending which side of the target you are traveling to, you ease up or down to correct.

This straight line (ground track) flight to a landmark also provides time for a pilot to evaluate the terrain ahead and determine if it’s suitable for the flight or approach he/she had in mind. If so, a little spit over the side  (watch it hit the ground if possible) and he/she has even more information and likely more options. This step in the steering process is very important for flight planning. It’s kind of like “cruise control” and lets the pilot think about and plan the options ahead. Again, if the balloon inadvertently enters significantly different wind unnoticed, all of the strategies relating to the projected destination are for naught and must be “remapped” again.

There is one other steering technique that comes to mind and it is what I call “flying the curve”. This situation commonly sets up during morning flights. From a couple hundred feet in altitude on down to the surface, the morning wind usually makes a smooth left turn arc. (Don’t count on it 1 ½ hours after sunrise!) This wind is often used to approach early morning targets in competition for a close throw. The trick to executing this approach successfully is of course having the precise vertical control we’ve discussed  and properly assessing the “basket breeze” during the descent. (The wind track you feel in the basket during a descent is the direction you will travel when the envelope enters that wind) The “basket breeze” allows the pilot to forecast the speed and direction of the turn before the envelope gets there and actually makes the turn. This allows the pilot to accelerate or decelerate the turn as needed by going down faster or slower while again focusing only on the center of the target. This technique takes practice but once the pilot has mastered the integration of up/down – less turn/more turn relation, it becomes like steering a car in a parking lot.

Good luck driving your balloon!