While all of us who have earned an FAA balloon rating can technically be called a pilot, for some, “floater” might be a more appropriate term. I don’t think anyone intentionally aspires to fit this label as its characteristics tend to evolve due to many circumstances. I have developed a little questionnaire that while not as scientific as a Cosmo quiz, it will give you an idea as to whether you might have a toe in this category.
Do you tend to fly from the middle or “rear” of the basket?
Does the balloon take you in directions in your flying area that make you nervous before you even get there?
Are you afraid to get near power lines in smooth air?
Do you have to carry your balloon out on occasion?
Do you have landowner issues more than the next pilot?
Do you use the vent to initiate a final descent to landing?
Are you and your crew unsure of where you will be landing until you are firmly on the ground?
If you have answered yes to very many of these questions, it might be time to invest some time and effort into retuning your pilot skills. “Floater” behavior creeps up slowly over time and can diminish your flying enjoyment substantially if you don’t face it and do something about it.
I find this disease most often attacks pilots that don’t challenge themselves in their flying on a regular basis. This could be because the flying area is easy and the social aspect of the sport becomes more important. The other justification I have heard is that ballooning should be “fun” and that anything that smacks of focus and extra effort is not appropriate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have seen many students progress over time. Those that are sincere about honing their skills, always enjoy the sport more fully. They are not nervous in normal flight, they land in great places with easy access and they can even tell their crew where they are going to land with 90% certainty. If you have become a closet “floater” over time, there are some things you can do about it.
One way to exit the slump is to hire a local pilot whose skills you admire and take a flight or 2 to find out what their mindset is while they fly. It helps the confidence tremendously to actually participate in and see some tight navigation and aggressive maneuvers to a landing area. Afterwards, you can practice at your own pace and gain the skill over a period of time. Even the thrill of improving slowly adds another dimension to this wonderful sport.
One sure fire method of self improvement is competing. For years I have heard that competing is only for the egomaniacs or the “I just want to have fun” rationale for not competing. In some places, it’s true that the competitive atmosphere gets a little heavy but you don’t have to let it affect you. Everyone has an ego and it can be embarrassing to lay it on the line and end up at the bottom of the list. However, with focus, you will improve and you will not only be able to transfers these skills to pleasure flying enjoyment and safety but you will eventually get your turn at the podium. There is nothing like lining up on a target and actually having the balloon go where you want it to go.
Self improvement without some form of physical or visual inspiration is difficult. However, it is possible for a floater to “rise” to the occasion with some focus and objectives. If there is no one there to help or push you along, you can use the following techniques. First of all, evaluate the balloon’s direction at takeoff and go to the front of the basket and even lean over the bolster or siderail a little for an unobstructed view of 180 degrees of the terrain ahead of you. Look down vertically and pan up to the horizon along the perceived direction of travel. Do this several times and you will suddenly “see” your ground track. Pick a landmark downwind that looks like it is directly in your path. Focus on that landmark while you fly. Do not lose focus. After a few moments, you will probably notice that you are going to one side of the selected landmark or the other. Pick another landmark further downwind that is more precisely in your path. Continue this process over and over. When you feel that your track is fairly sustainable using altitude control, look in the direction of another wind layer (surface or upper) and evaluate using one of them to get to a favorable spot ahead of you. Calculate when to go to the other wind and go at the appropriate time and try to make the objective. It is important to persist in trying to get to the objective. If you give up right away when the turn doesn’t work right you won’t improve much.
This is not new information. However floating is an insidious mental phenomena. It creeps up slowly and robs you of your skills before you know it. Take the balloon by the crown line and make it go where you want it to go. Leave that “Sissy Rope” in its pouch and land the balloon by yourself whenever possible. Your flights will be safer, and much more enjoyable as a “pilot”.