Getting ready to fire up the old bag (your balloon) for the summer flying season? If getting current is your first concern, you might want to consider a review and practice of some emergency procedures before you get too far. The beginning of the season is perhaps the best time to refresh yourself on the fundamentals of emergency responses as emergencies don’t always wait until you have gotten back into your flying comfort zone (if you have one). For those who fly all year, it is just as important to take the time to review and actually practice the appropriate responses to sudden balloon malfunctions.
Emergency procedures (EPs) are a result of emergencies that usually occur suddenly while in the flight process. The Private Pilot PTS asks the student to explain remedies for some situations that are likely to happen in an emergency. We will use them as examples.
Pilot light flameout or failure – This one seems simple enough. If that’s the case, then why have there been accidents where the pilot tried relighting the pilot light all the way to the ground? Improper training? No training? Pilot retention? If a pilot light goes out, there are only a few possible reasons. If the culprit is oxygen starvation, you want to relight quickly and get on your way. If it is fuel starvation (clogged line, faulty regulator, converter etc), you want to make sure it’s not oxygen starvation by trying a couple of quick relights with the piazzo igniter or a striker. No luck? It’s time to light the liquid (actually vapor) out of the main blast valve. If your pilot light is of a bad design, or having problems you are probably prepared and likely have strikers hung like Christmas tree ornaments around the basket and your neck. The elapsed time between the first sssss to the first relight should be 3 seconds at most. If it becomes necessary to relight to main blast valve, it should not take more than 5-6 seconds total. I prefer to teach students how to relight the blast valve rather than the backup glow valve because the blast valve is very quick to light once the proper technique is used and it provides the most instantaneous full power which is usually needed after a sudden flameout. The technique to relight the blast valve is also identical in any balloon make or model while the backup valve relights require some thought if you haven’t used them lately or happen to be flying a different balloon.
This requires a predetermined procedure and plan. Knowledge of the striker location and how to safely and successfully light the liquid coming out of the blast valve are essential elements to this exercise. To light the raw propane flow from the blast valve it is necessary to locate a side opening in the burner, insert the striker, activate the blast valve then back off, and begin striking above the fuel jets as the liquid propane is dissipating. When done correctly, there will be a small pop and momentary burst of flame. Use this to burn and activate any backup pilot system while it is still burning. With a little practice, you will find it easier to light the blast valve than the pilot light and the real plus is that it works with any balloon burner made.
Blast valve failure – Again, a simple scenario but crucial to have a plan ahead of time.
Blast valve stuck on – Perhaps try to activate it on and off a few quick times but go to the tank valve for continuing the flight to a safe landing area.
Blast Valve stuck off – Try to re-activate it several times very quickly. Go to backup liquid system for flight to a landing site.
Leaky blast valve – Wear gloves! Go to backup liquid system for flight to a landing site.
Fuel exhaustion – Get low. The “book” says to land in control (with fuel) rather than take a chance on landing with no control. I buy some of that but that’s not what really happens out there. For example, when moving slowing over a large stand of trees while almost empty, it’s a difficult decision to just drive the balloon into the trees when you still have fuel. In a forest, an uncontrolled landing in a tree from treetop height is usually not much different from a controlled one. I think the thing to consider is that if you are trying to eek your way to a landing zone ahead, you will likely cross a set of wires before you get there. The real question is how lucky do you think you will be at the moment you cross the wires.
Propane leak – Shut off the source (tank valve), then bleed out the line immediately. Go to backup liquid system. In the case of multiple leaks or some malady not described here, it might be useful to wrap or cover a slow leak (tank top) with a jacket to keep the vapor from floating upward to the burner.
Envelope failure – Burn! In general, if there is a fabric failure in the upper third of the balloon, you have to try control your descent to the ground. If the balloon continues to accelerate downward, you must increase burning even if it requires a solid burn (burn through the mouth if necessary). Envelope volume and lift are the keys here. Most other tears or holes sustained in flight in the lower parts of the balloon will allow the balloon to be flown to the next available landing site. Failure of the vent to open requires precision flying to set it down gently in an open area to allow it to drag to a stop. A friendly tree brake may be useful.
The aforementioned emergency situations and procedures are the most common and remedial action for each of these should be practiced on a regular basis (with the exception of envelope failures and the like). The beginning of the season is a perfect time to physically practice relights, leak procedures etc. I advise performing these functions on the ground under the envelope until they are second nature. If the scenario can’t be safely practiced (envelope failure), a plan for corrective action should be thought through and revisited regularly. Emergencies seldom happen, but when they do, there may be no time for intuition. Make a plan and keep it current.