A great deal of discussion is devoted to high wind landings. This is logical as they tend to carry the most risk of injury and “surprises”. Standup landings on the other hand don’t seem to carry the focus that they deserve in view of the fact that they occur at least 10 times for every windy landing.
Standup landing are a critical maneuver in many flights. They allow walking the balloon to a favorable recovery site, picking up more passengers, and landing in a smaller area than required for a ripout landing.
Most standup landings should be executed with precision and include little or no slippage below 5 mph. Parachute tops are optimum for this type of landing as they can dump large amounts of hot air quickly. The reason I suggest little or no slippage on all landings is so that the pilot will come to know exactly how little room he/she needs for a specific wind speed when landing in a tight area. This skill and confidence comes with practice. Once a pilot learns to “stick” the balloon on moderate speed landings, his/her available landing areas will increase dramatically. Some topcap systems won’t allow sticking the balloon. There will always be a little bounce at landing no matter how the landing is finessed. However, when a parachute top is activated with proper timing, it is possible to stick the basket with no slip or bounce in moderate winds (5mph or less).
The optimum method for operating a standard parachute top is a 3 phase operation. The first phase requires the initial pull on the vent line several feet above the ground. If the balloon accelerates at all before hitting the ground, you have pulled to early. The object of this pull is to get out all the slack in the lines and start the curling of the edges of the top cap. The next phase occurs at impact. Depending on the descent rate, the envelope will “compress” towards the ground, following its downward inertia. It is essential that the pilot continue pulling the vent to offset the loosening of the control lines caused by the continued downward motion of the envelope. This happens very quickly and requires rapid pulling to keep the vent lines taunt. The third phase (and most critical) requires a significant lunge downward with the vent line just as the envelope begins rebounding upward. If done properly, the vent opening will enlarge just as the hot air is rebounding upward in the envelope. This will release a huge volume of hot air and lift causing the basket to “stick” in place. If executed properly, the balloon may become limp and will require careful nursing burns to tighten it back up, especially in a breeze. The 3 phases of venting must occur within a small window of time say 5 seconds tops. Timing is the key to this maneuver. If the pilot misses the vent line lunge against the rebound, a bounce will occur and additional venting will do little to stop the forward movement. One word of caution, there are a few parachute top envelopes that not allow excessive venting even within a small window of time. In these models, the top will float and often deflate the envelope. Be sure to try this maneuver in an open field at first to determine if your top has this tendency.
Pilots attempting to give multiple rides in one flight have unique issues to deal with. First of all, the decision to take off again has been addressed by the FAA and most FSDO’s enforce a certain policy. The policy states that if a balloon lands in a congested area, the flight is considered terminated. If the pilot decides to take off again, he/she can be violated for low flying. However, if the landing takes place in a non congested area, the pilot is usually allowed to take off again. Please remember that this interpretation is not universal and can be enforced in many different ways by different FSDO’s. Intermediate landings for “hops” offer many advantages over final landings. The biggest advantage is that they can be executed in places that are inaccessible by vehicle or wet, trashed and dirty. Whether you are slipping between the vines in Napa, greasing it in at 8mph in Albuquerque or dodging swamps in Florida, landowner issues become the key issue when picking up a second load of passengers. Even though you aren’t planning a final deflation, there becomes a significant trespassing issue. Landowners may not appreciate you landing on their property at times but let some of them see you tromping across their property with a boatload of passengers and returning with the exiting group and you just might get to witness some real fireworks.
Final landing sites require much scrutiny before a decision can be made to deflate there. A standup landing is important to be able to make a final evaluation of issues such as vehicle access and landowner approval. Low hour pilots learn quickly to screen for access roads and open gates on approach. A “carry out” landing site is not soon forgotten. Visiting pilots in new areas often leave their balloon inflated after landing so the crew can locate them visually. I tend to depend on my memory of the access point to the property. Rather than burn fuel and add hours to the envelope, I will usually deflate and walk to the main road access point and talk my crew in on the radio. However, this does require high quality radios. If it’s necessary to walk the balloon to the edge of the landing area, try to make the landing as far upwind as possible. It is much easier to walk the balloon with some component of the wind than across or opposed to it.
If a standup landing is possible, the pilot should instruct the crew to get permission and check for vehicle access. This needs to happen quickly if it’s breezy. If no one’s home and gate’s locked, it’s a tough call for the pilot to go on or not. If the gates are open, it’s breezy, and no one’s home, it might be safest to deflate (in an accessible spot) and have the crew contact a neighbor. The “I’m sure he won’t mind” may turn out to be great insurance if the owner drives up during packup. Never drive on to the field until packup is complete unless owner permission has been secured. Plan the vehicle retrieval so that it is quick and causes no damage. Leave a note, phone number, and token of appreciation at the door. This courtesy will demonstrate your professionalism and concern for their personal property and pave the way for future access.