Contouring in a balloon can be defined as following the terrain or obstacle profile at a very close tolerance for a consecutive period of time. Except for the final landing approach, it is perhaps the most valuable maneuver a balloonist has at his/her disposal.
In my opinion, there are generally 3 levels of contouring. The first is flying low, about 3-4 feet over the obstacles/terrain at a precision of plus or minus 2 feet. The second level is flying at a close contour, at a precision of plus or minus one foot, touching the weeds/grass at times but never the ground. The third is flying with a precision of plus or minus 6” or less, without ever touching the weed tops and not only following the contours up but timing the burns so that the balloon follows the contours on the backside as well. This last and most precise level of contouring requires a lot of practice to execute well but it is worth the effort as it can save you ugly hike outs and put you on the scoreboard at competitive events.
Why is contouring so important to the flying of a balloon? First of all it is the best mechanism for teaching a new student equilibrium control and the dynamics of inertia shifts. I used to spend many hours explaining the theory of equilibrium and inertia in a balloon to students before we went out to fly. I thought that if I was able to get the student to a level of understanding of the concept of contouring on paper, it would pay off with an accelerated path to balloon control using the burner. I found out that while they did understand the concepts we covered and that the material made sense, it was not relevant when they were in the basket cruising along the ground along with 3 extra tons of mass overhead and me looking over their shoulder. Consequently, I found that using the contouring maneuver for demos and student trial and error provided the quickest route to understanding and skill to apply for balloon control. The obvious advantage of contouring is that there is immediate visual feedback after burner operation. Once a reasonable skill in contouring is achieved, the student can more easily transfer this knowledge to higher altitudes where the terrain feedback is more subtle. This transfer is not always immediate but it is a much better method of learning transfer that the reliance on instruments for level flight at higher altitudes.
Precise contouring is valuable for many other situations as well. I just received a note from a recent student describing her first flight after returning to Mexico. She and another pilot (2 balloons) launched from their balloon port and flew to their objective (The Mexico City Pyramids). The other pilot who is very accomplished and skilled offered her the only chase vehicle and said he wouldn’t need it as he planned to fly back to the launch field which is often possible with the winds in that area. I’m sure you know what happened next. On the return leg, she used her newfound skills to not only contour the tree tops but to dip below the tree line whenever possible (contouring the backside), allowing the balloon to take advantage of the tighter, subtle turns at deck level. Over the course of a half mile, these subtle turns combined with the low winds brought her smoothly back in to the launch field. The other pilot ended up in a cactus field. She will never forget that lesson. Precise contouring over the course of some distance often pays huge dividends.
Several years ago while competing in Albuquerque, I was coming up to the large field by the RV parking that had 3 targets. Since there is always tough crowd competition wise in Albuquerque, I knew I had to get a close throw or I had no chance to win. I had planned to make an approach on the target on the near left side of the field. As I started my approach, a balloon below me made an unexpected move upward (no real surprise??), I quickly leveled out and overflew the collision zone and immediately resumed my descent. My choice was to throw quickly and maybe make the outside leg of the target or go for the target at the far end of the field Maybe 15 degrees to my right. It didn’t look promising as the wind was quick and the turns few. I chose to keep the marker. As I got down near ground level, I rolled about 10 degrees right. Still, 5 degrees left of the target line, I would be 30’-50’ away from the center at this rate. There was a balloon in front of me at my level but to slightly to my right. He too was cruising about 5’ above the ground. I knew my only chance was to get even lower. I went to 6” and focused. I don’t think I ever got over 1’ for the entire length of the field. The balloon to my right at 5-10’ cruising height got a little right turn but flew past the target over the end of the left leg. At a consistent 6”, I kept feeling subtle bumps to the right and finally crossed the center of the target and got a close throw. The scorers were lying on the ground looking for daylight under my basket as I approached the target but I never touched the ground. Precision contouring pays off in many ways.
Contouring is useful in many ways during the course of flying. The above examples are just a few of the benefits of the precise execution of the maneuver. The highest level of precision is achieved when close tolerances are maintained (6” or less) and nothing on the landscape is touched. This requires looking further out ahead of the basket and visualizing the flow line that keeps the basket close to the contour line but eliminates contact with anything. This technique also requires precise burn timing so that the basket has a natural fall on the backside of the high point on the contour line. This can all be accomplished with practice and consistent “pop burns” (ultra short burns). Good luck and see you at the center of the target.