Anyone who has ever taken a golf lesson understands how difficult it is to assimilate all the do’s and don’ts associated with a simple swing of the club. “Keep your head down, look at the ball, retain the proper grip and keep it loose, aim to hit the target, address the ball, relax (yea, sure), start a slow steady backswing, don’t go too far, accelerate smoothly downward, shift your weight, watch the ball, keep your head down and follow through”. This is just a sampling of the commands I try to remember when I swing. It’s no wonder that my golfing buddies take cover when I come up.
This feeling of being overwhelmed is not unlike the perspective of a new student in a balloon taking instruction. In order to fly a balloon skillfully and with proper awareness, a pilot needs to have developed a number of semi-automated responses that require very little conscious thought. One of the first semi-automatic responses necessary is equilibrium awareness. This is the “feel” everyone talks about that senses what the balloon is doing (going up, down or level) and what it is about to do. Once this feel is developed, the next skill required is developing the appropriate response to create the desired effect. In short, if the balloon is about to go down, it may be time to burn. If the balloon is in a descent and you have been burning, it may be time to let up and let the balloon react. Assuming the “feel” came naturally to the student, the appropriate response part will take much practice and repetition. After control of the balloon becomes nearer to second nature, deciding where to navigate becomes crucial. New pilots ending up in a planted field or having to carry the balloon out of an inaccessible landing area are quick to put navigation on the top of their pilot skills list. The desired outcomes on a flight become crystal clear after a hike out. Proper in-flight decision making soon dawns on all but the most stubborn as the best method of ending the cycle of surprises and long mornings at landing. The process by which this is accomplished is a skill I call mental mapping. I think this skill is unique to balloonists. It requires the pilot to visualize the current wind directions and their depths (low and high winds) and apply the directional vectors to the terrain below, while quickly evaluating all the possible outcomes and choosing the best combination for the highest percentage of success (good landing area, competition target etc). The need to repeat this process quickly is imperative because with one slight wind shift, the entire plan can go out the window and a new “target” must be selected based on the available winds. Mental mapping and quick remapping, combined with the technical ability to execute the current plan is a skill that evades perfection.
The learning process as described above comes in stages just as many things do. However, from my experience, I have found that students tend to reject most input concerning in-flight decision making until they have gained some confidence in their balloon “feel” and subsequent response skills. This is only natural as it seems to take a great deal of concentration to calibrate their kinesthetic senses and formulate appropriate responses (burning at the right time). I have found that after a discussion of the equilibrium and inertia theories relating to controlled flight, and a demo or two, it’s best to keep on the quiet side for a couple of hours. It’s very important for the student to go through a series of trials and errors and internalize the subtle causes and effects of their performance. Instructor distraction during this process is counterproductive and it often delays the development in this area. As I mentioned above, without some level of confidence in the feel and control of the balloon, ground tracking, pilot decision making, and many other concepts can’t be taught effectively. If this is the case in a controlled training atmosphere, just imagine the trauma of a student who is offered some “instruction” at a balloon event where several pilots are planning a fun flight in the same balloon. It is tempting for pilots to pitch in and “help” the student but again, this is usually counterproductive because the student has usually had inconsistent training and his/her focus will be on little more than trying to regain that feel and measured response.
The purpose of this article is to remind instructors who are giving someone a casual hour of instruction, or are only able to instruct their student on occasion that the student will likely be stuck in kinesthetic uncertainty with a desire to burn at the slightest visual queue. I find that some brief conceptual instruction and a couple of strategically placed demos combined with silence (even in the face of mistakes) goes a long way to bringing them along faster so that they can soon develop the skills and awareness to fly at the correlative level and make their own prudent inflight decisions.