Law of Primacy

The first concept that my mind conjures up when I see the “Law of Primacy” written is that the biggest gorilla always wins. This may be true in most cases but the Law of Primacy as it relates to ballooning means something quite different. This law refers to the axiom that states “first learned is best learned”. This means that the technique or concept that you first learn about something will likely stay with you forever in some form or fashion. The obvious lesson here is to learn it correctly the first time and you should have no problems down the road. Also, more complex concepts and tasks can be added and success will continue to follow since the fundamental tasks were learned correctly.

In a past issue, I referred to one glaring “bad habit” that I had noticed when training some commercial students who had been flying for several years and had over 100 hours. The problem was one of insufficient concentration on the part of the pilot during flight. This lack of concentration can cause many lasting, harmful side effects. One obvious one is poor landing site selection which is often a result of little or no flight planning earlier in the flight. Upon further examination, it appears to me that many bad technical habits are also formed as a result of those lapses in focus and awareness. For instance, excessive venting is usually a result of minimal balloon control which is a result of weak concentration during the maneuver. The lack of control is made up for by venting a little here and there until it becomes a habit and part of the pilot’s flying “style”. All this “style” really does is waste fuel and burn the balloon up faster. The point of this discussion is that the development of bad habits is an insidious process that can creep up with much notice. The symptoms of these bad habits may only be that the pilot may land in a bad area once in a while or have to slam the ground harder than necessary in order to make a landing site. These scenarios may go unnoticed. The real problem lies when precision skills are required to make a tight landing in the wind. Certainly the concentration level of the pilot goes up the meet the situation but the bad habits are there to join the party as well. There is no room for overcorrection with a burner or vent in some tight landing situations. The only option becomes passing up the spot or ripping out higher above the ground. This is where people get hurt. Bad habits can and will come back to bite you!

In a recent local safety seminar, we had chosen to discuss high insurance claim items for discussion. The injury/claim statistics pointed to highwind/hard landings as the major culprit in balloon losses. I asked a local pilot to lead the discussion while going over the proper procedures for executing a safe high wind landing. This pilot is a very experienced, high hour, safe balloon pilot who is respected by all who know him. His discussion on approaches to low obstacle, long field windy landings was fairly straightforward and raised few additional comments. His illustration of windy landings in congestion with a short field got my attention. The method he uses is a level approach just over the rooftops. When an adequate “hole” is spotted, he suggests turning off the pilot lights and ripping out. I quickly raised my hand and countered his suggestion with a scenario that would include a shallow descent to the obstacle edge, quick vent; immediate deceleration burns and rip out at the bottom. He said that that would also work but it was more difficult to execute the shallow descent with the perfect timing necessary to an obstacle edge at the right time and attitude. I looked at him in amazement. He is on par with the most skilled pilots in this country yet he chooses to execute a short field, windy landing near obstacles with a rip out around obstacle top level. Obviously these scenarios led to some lively discussions about the different approach techniques and whether to turn off pilot lights before a high wind landing.

Soon after the session was over, I recalled his earlier description of a high wind landing he made many years ago as a low hour pilot in a congested downtown area. His description included the fact that he was using only a 4 million BTU burner. The scenario played out with pilot lights off and a rip out at around building top level over a cemetery. He said even though the landing was hard, he and his passenger were happy to be down. Given the situation, I’m sure I would have concurred had I been there.

As I thought more about this I realized that his congested area, high wind landing technique had not changed from his early days when the burner barely kept the balloon in the air. Even though later model burners had sufficient power to offset gravity’s pull to some degree in a steep descent, he used the technique that he learned with. Talk about the power of habit. (Incidentally, if I used this type of approach, I would turn off my pilots early too)  I was fortunate to learn to fly with the first 11 million BTU burners. I had never considered the fact that it had probably shaped my flying habits differently than someone who had learned on a low power burner.

The point of this discussion is that the law of primacy is stronger than you might think. When you having small problems with final landing areas, balloon control, burns in the throat of the balloon etc, rethink your technique thoroughly and evaluate whether you are employing any bad habits. If you’re not sure, ask someone who might know. In any case, keep an open mind no matter what your experience level and search for better flying techniques even though your methods have worked in the past.

Personally, I will watch and listen more attentively to other pilots and evaluate other techniques more openly than I have in the past. If a different technique seems to work better, this old dog will be learning some new tricks.