Monkey See Monkey Do
The great thing about balloonists is that they are social creatures. They love to get together to fly and party when possible. The bad thing about balloonists is that they are social creatures. When they see one pilot doing something, they often follow suit.
I was flying in a small event just out of Mexico City several months ago and had planned to use one of the local’s balloons. When I arrived at the launch site, the balloon and chase vehicle were already there. The balloon had been unloaded facing east, backed up against a north/south brick wall. The Mexican forecast had been for a slight flow out of the northwest. However, when I arrived, the pibals were showing no movement until about 200 feet. At that level, the wind was beginning a brisk movement to the west. No one seemed concerned as the surface remained calm with no breeze at all.
Every experienced balloonist has been in this situation. You arrive at the field and some balloons are already laid out. From your perspective, it sure seems like the wrong direction based on the information you have. “But they are all going the wrong direction” Your conclusion is that “It will be OK this time”, or “They must know something I don’t”. You end up laying out in the common direction. By the time cold inflation starts, the wind reversal makes the field look like one big Chinese Fire Drill and the local repair station needs a very large truck to pick up the debris.
In the situation in Mexico, I was concerned about layout direction but let myself fall into the group mentality because the balloon was large and had already been laid out. The owner also assured me that it would be no problem. As fate would have it, the upper wind came down during inflation and 10 out of 12 of the balloons were caught in 10mph, 180 degree reversals. Amazingly there was little damage but a lot of very close calls with disaster. I vowed “never again”.
Of all the copy cat maneuvers pilots fall victim to, I think layout direction is the most common. It’s not always the first guy’s fault. Often, the wind conditions are non existent or different earlier. If there is no sign of wind, the first pilot may use any number of parameters for layout direction criteria. The point is, when you arrive, get out of the vehicle before lining up with the others, and evaluate existing surface and low level wind conditions before making a decision on layout direction. Try to imagine that you are the only one at the field and you are not interested in any emergency crew training exercises. Your layout direction decision will always be the best one.
Another monkey see monkey do pitfall is whether to even fly or not in marginal conditions when other balloons are launching. Of all the calls to make, this is definitely the most difficult in any balloonist’s career. The bad news is that it doesn’t get much easier over time. There will always be marginal conditions to challenge even the most experienced pilot. The reason that this is such a delicate decision is that it is important for the low hour pilot to experience some “combat flying” from time to time. This experience will serve to keep them safe and confident in the future. So the choice to stay on the ground at any sign of a weather aberration can be counterproductive. However, in wind or turbulent air, the damage risk goes up. It is a tough call. I know that many of my skills came from being pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to land in places that didn’t appear big enough for a balloon to inflate, much less land.
The practice of following the flight path of another balloon in flight can be good or bad depending on whom you are following. A competent pilot will generally head in the direction of the best landing areas. However, sometimes there are other strategies at work and following a pilot who is heading for the city might not be appropriate for the low hour pilot. I insist on competition at all the balloon events I run simply to provide leadership to the target which is placed in the optimum location for safety and landing options. Even those not interested in the target seem to migrate to the target area eventually and help minimize the chances for lost balloons and landowner issues.
It is a great tool to watch other pilots and learn from their procedures if they are experienced and appear to have consistent safe and error free flights. The trick is not to mimic them but to integrate their beneficial techniques into your own flight procedures and continue to make your own decisions. If you follow the monkey see monkey do system, you will find yourself in trouble as often as not. My advice is to stay away from the bananas and make you own independent decisions as if there was no one to follow.