Face forward, bend your knees, and hold on tight

If you’ve ever uttered these words in the moments preceding a windy landing, you can be credited with following the traditions of safe high wind landings techniques as taught in the United Sates and many other places. Is it a good method? Is there a better method? Since high wind landings account for the majority of the balloon insurance claims made, it might be prudent to revisit windy landing techniques and see if there’s something that can be changed to mitigate the risk involved.

If you have ever read more than one of my columns, you have probably noticed that I preach balloon control. Someone that flies plus or minus 2 feet in normal approaches will certainly impact the ground much harder in a windy landing than a pilot that can fly a smooth line. Is high wind landing safety solely dependant on the skill of the pilot?

Having the opportunity to discuss high wind landings with veteran ride pilots from England and Africa, I believe there are some sound techniques available that don’t rely on the pilot’s ability to grease every landing in order to avoid injury. These pilots insist that facing backwards (passengers and pilot) is the safest way to execute any high wind landing. The concept is simple. Passengers are told to face backwards, hold on in 2 places (upwind side of the basket), keep their feet together and knees bent as in a parachute jump. This increases net ankle strength and distributes any landing shock over the entire body. When facing backward and holding on in 2 places, there is ample upper body strength to handle the vertical impact and the rollover, even for elderly passengers. If they do let go from the upper side of the basket, in the crouched position they would simply fall softly to the downside of the basket and remain protected by the basket enclosure.

When the above technique is compared to windy landing methods advocated in the US, the shortfalls of the latter seem obvious. “Face forward, bend your knees and hold on in two places” Hmmm… The sudden stop at the ground (vertical and horizontal) will cause the bodies in the basket to follow the laws of physics. The bent knees will bend more and lurch forward. If there is a tank or other obstacle in their path to the downside wicker, get ready for some serious pain. If the basket doesn’t land exactly broadside down, the sudden shift at touchdown works to twist the unsuspecting ankles. The good news is that if that everything goes perfectly under the waist, the passengers have only to muster the adrenaline of an Olympic Rings athlete to keep their arms in the sockets after the sudden horizontal deceleration. Those who let go of their hand holds in favor of avoiding dislocation, face the excitement of falling to the downside of the basket. The choices are breaking the fall with their hands at the shear point where the moving ground meets the basket edge or doing a full body slam like a guppy out of water, hoping the majority of their body stays on the wicker. It doesn’t sound very tempting. Does it?

In order to give this quantum change in technique a try, a pilot must be willing to delve into the unknown and break habits which have been ingrained since the start. Is it easy? No. Can it be done? Yes. Is it worth it? This pilot thinks so.

I have been thinking about this for quite a while. While in Albuquerque, I decided to give it a try. My first attempt to face backwards came in a 7-8 mph landing in a medium size field. My approach was dead on, so after a normal passenger briefing I reversed my body to look backwards (at the passenger) on final. The 2 or 3 seconds that I remained reversed seemed like an eternity. That, combined with the befuddled expression of the passenger, caused me to turn around and execute the landing as normal. Somehow, I knew there had to be a better way.

For the next breezy landing, I decided to delay my reversal until the last second and simply pivot 180 degrees. This time I told the passenger to turn around as well, hold on to the tank and rope, keep feet together, bend knees and continue facing backwards until we were stopped.  From the forward facing position, I was able to finesse the approach and center the landing for a no risk drag. Just as I started to pull the vent several feet off the ground, I rotated my body 180 degrees and leaned back against the wicker in a slight crouch. It was great! The momentum push against the wicker when we hit the ground gave me added friction for pulling the rest of the vent. Unfortunately, the reversed position also allowed me to witness my passenger, who apparently decided not to face rearward, come sailing across the basket and land on my stomach after the basket tipped. Other than a slight case of elbow stomach, I felt like the technique had some real promise. I didn’t have another opportunity to try again but I certainly will. However, my next passenger briefing will include the fact that they had better listen because ‘I’ll be watching”.

If you decide to try this method of breezy landing, you might want to be methodical in your transition. You should probably try it in a little breeze before backing into a 20 knot rip and drag. Since you or your passengers aren’t looking ahead, also make sure everyone faces inward during landing to avoid any contact with the uprights or other surprises. Long hair on the down side might be an issue as well. Good luck and let me know if you have any other suggestions in this area. I believe there’s a few new tricks left in the old dog.