Flying in the wind (Part 2)

Last issue’s article dealt with high wind flight preparations and takeoff. Now we’re going to cover the “fun” part.

Once aloft in windy conditions, it is even more important than ever that you have a flight plan that will deliver you to the largest open areas available at landing. The flight part of a high wind adventure is actually quite fun. However, it takes many hours of experience and lots of confidence to enjoy the ride to it’s fullest. Most pilots tend to be preoccupied with the landing  prospects and the flight is not a central focus. This is especially true when the flight involves paying customers. Unknown passengers, who are expecting a tranquil float in the air, place an enormous additional burden on the pilot. The pilot must maintain his/her composure throughout the flight and instill the feel of confidence no matter what the prospects of the landing might be. Whereas, if the passengers are friends and in reasonable physical shape, the pilot can sometimes be more “honest” and share the dilemma facing the flight crew. The ability to share this intensity provides much relief for the pilot.

One of the differences in windy flight is that objects arrive faster than normal and landing fields shrink. These differences are usually assimilated by the pilot after a short while in the air. In fact, this mental adjustment is so natural that sometimes the pilot doesn’t recognize that surface conditions have become windy and that preparations will be necessary for a high wind landing. It is very important that the determination that this is a windy flight be made somewhere along the journey before the landing approach.

Flight in higher winds would seem to be similar to flying in calmer winds. Once the mental adjustment of obstacle closure rates was assimilated, the pilot would adjust his/her burn sequences to compensate. However, there are a few key differences. Wind friction with the ground creates varying degrees of turbulence especially at lower levels. Turbulence causes unexpected movements up and down as well as sudden cooling of the envelope and subsequent (quick) descents. The only defense against these sudden moves is to keep your “buffer” a little larger than normal. What I mean by “buffer” is that space that you leave as a safety zone between you and an obstacle as you approach. It is also crucial that you use a burn sequence that includes short but steady control burns when approaching obstacles. This technique allows for quicker recognition of any outside forces acting on the balloon and subsequent timely reactions to downdrafts.

This brings us to the “High Wind Landing”. Much has been written about this subject. I read somewhere that the majority of insurance claims are a result of injuries sustained in windy landings. I don’t doubt it. The fundamentals of a high wind landing are simple. Pick the biggest area you can get to, use a low angle of approach to the target area or the highest obstacle in front of the target, flare before hitting the ground if possible, rip out and hang on. There are several additional steps to this process, but those are the essential items of the landing execution.

Let’s discuss the approach. Except in rare situations, the low profile approach is the best. It allows the pilot to study the landing area, make final preparations, finish passenger briefings, and assure items are stowed etc. The low angle, straight line approach should aim for a spot just above the top of the highest obstacle in front of the LZ (landing zone). This might be trees, powerlines, or a fence post etc. The approach doesn’t have to be perfect until the balloon is directly over the highest obstacle. At that point, the pilot should be in a slight natural (no vent) descent with a good view of the LZ. If the LZ looks appropriate,  the pilot may need to vent quickly and return to the burner for a flare if possible. The most difficult windy landings are in short fields with high upwind obstacles (especially powerlines). Powerlines leave no fudge factor like trees that can be brushed. The balloon has to clear the lines with a reasonable buffer, immediately change inertia downward, and hopefully have some flare at the bottom. I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that the perceived impact on a windy landing goes up exponentially with the vertical speed at which the basket contacts the ground. This is because the coefficient of friction between the basket and the ground nears 100% at impact when the basket skids dig in as opposed to some “give” when the balloon is under the influence of a flare. That sudden stop is what contributes to passenger injuries. The notion of ripping at 10’ over a field is ridiculous in most cases. The balloon should be flown as low as possible to the ground, flared and ripped out.

In preparing this article, I canvassed a number of experience pilots on the following subject. I learned some interesting things. I have read for years that it is prudent to turn off pilot lights during a high wind landing. I remember trying it years ago and nearly hitting some wires as the wind shifted down low. Except in cases of severe ground fire hazard, I don’t shut them off until the drag or final stop. In my discussion with other pilots, I found about 60% of them plan to shut off pilot lights before impact. The other 40% are very determined that their pilot lights stay on until an opportunity to turn them off presents itself after landing. There are merits to both opinions. One might suggest that it’s obvious that you should shut down all sources of flame when preparing for the impact of a breezy landing. However, I (and others that leave them on) contend that the benefits of  having control of the balloon until the moment of touchdown outweigh the downside. The concept is that you can dampen the impact with more flare, jump small field obstacles as they appear or abort the landing at any moment. You also have one less thing to do allowing you to focus more on executing the smoothest touchdown you can. This method minimizes the impact thereby lessening the chance of equipment failure and passenger injury. The downside of leaving them on presents other risks. Fuel system equipment and burners damaged or ruptured during impact will have an ignition source and could cause disastrous results. Some pilots have said that they leave the pilots on but turn off the tank valves, leaving a little juice for last minute burns. Others turn off one pilot light and leave the other to the very last second. Whatever you do, think it through, visualize the process, and make it a habit. You have very little time in the execution phase of some high wind landings and any indecision could impede the success of the landing.