Flying in a free balloon is one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences an earthbound human can experience. Piloting one of these larger than life aircraft adds still another dimension to the package. Getting it to go where you want is the ultimate reward. What are the key skill components that are required to achieve this elusive goal?
Echoed many times before, precise control is necessary to get that last 100’ of accuracy in the quest for any ground target. Short of that, moderate control combined with a dynamic (constantly evolving) flight plan and focused ground tracking will yield consistent success as well. Let’s review the dynamic flight plan.
Before takeoff and even before inflation, the pilot should have a general idea of where the balloon is likely to travel given the current weather conditions. Some geographic locations give more latitude than others for the eventual successful retrieval. At liftoff, after proper obstacle clearances have been observed, the pilot should immediately focus on the balloon’s direction during the ascent. Each direction and subsequent turn should be evaluated by the simple criteria “Do I like this direction”? Many times, pilots have made an initial flight plan on the ground and remain determined to execute that plan regardless of changing conditions. They often miss subtle wind changes that occurred during inflation that might provide better odds for a more enjoyable ground track. During the first 5 to 10 minutes of flight, the pilot should have a mental flight plan that includes the general location of the proposed final landing area. This plan may change a number of times during the flight but it’s crucial to have a final objective at all times during the flight.
Once a final landing vicinity has been selected, how do you get the balloon to go there? It’s a simple concept but slightly more difficult to master than it looks. I will attempt to define the process below.
As mentioned earlier, it is always prudent to assess the direction of every wind encountered on the initial ascent. Unless it is necessary to blast up to a known wind for some special objective, a steady climb with an acute focus on direction is recommended. This wind assessment I’m referring to requires not only an accurate evaluation of the balloon’s direction at any given moment but an evaluation of the ramifications of travel in that particular direction as well. To be successful at this, the process must be executed quickly or opportunities may be missed. In light and variable conditions, this process is especially challenging as the balloon may shift directions several times even on a shallow ascent. There are probably several good vantage points in the basket for spotting these subtle turns. I stand slightly away from the edge of the basket and look across the leather on my siderail to the ground. I don’t focus but rather use my periphery vision to sense relative movement to the ground. My first impulse of direction is usually wrong, especially in a turn. After repeated tries, I get an accurate sense of the turn and then I evaluate all of the possibilities of each direction. For instance, if I see a thin wind opposing the upper trend, I will likely take it and get the return ticket on the higher wind later. Or, if I see a subtle wind going to something interesting (river, lake, mountain etc) with a correction wind above, I go for the fun stuff.
Once your initial plan is made, it’s important that you ground track your way to the intended destination. This can be done several ways. If you can see your general destination in the distance, make an imaginary line to it noting several landmarks in the path. Focus on the nearest landmark and evaluate your track while standing in the front of the basket in the direction of travel. This can be done by looking at the landmark and panning down to a vertical view across the wicker to the ground. After evaluating the ground track under the basket, you then pan back up to the target. You will then have a general idea of your ground track. Unfortunately, it is not accurate enough to be of much benefit. A 5 degree error will leave you more than ¼ mile away from your ultimate target which puts you back in the mullet category. It’s important to repeat the panning process several times until you realize that the track is actually going directly for a tree in the yard, fence intersection or some other notable landmark. At that point, you focus on that landmark, excluding everything else (assuming you are above all ground obstacles) and voila! You will be in the sweet spot. Continued focus on that landmark will give you instant feedback on your current direction and subtle turns. If you are tracking straight at the object, it will not move in your vision. If you start tracking left of its line, it will be apparent immediately. You can either adjust your altitude slightly to correct the turn or find a new landmark that lines up with your track if that direction suits your purpose. Your path to the final destination is simply tracking a series of landmarks and making subsequent adjustments.
Most flights do not follow a straight line to a destination unless fuel is an issue and/or landing sites are scarce. Normal flight plans usually include some turns within a set of lateral boundaries along the windline. In other words, the pilot needs to determine imaginary parallel lines to the left and right of his/her flight path that will still allow steerage into the intended final landing area. These boundary lines are usually defined by landmarks. It is very important to constantly reevaluate these boundaries during the flight using the using the direction data taken from consistent ground tracking.
These aforementioned skills are routinely developed by pilots flying in congested areas, over hostile terrain and in competition. Those who have the luxury of a large choice of good landing areas should also make an effort to ground track with precision as the benefits are substantial. With a little practice, you can ask the crew to refuel the chase truck, have it washed, pick up some coffee and rolls, and meet you at your chosen landing spot in an hour when you touch down. Good luck!g the center of the target