PIC or BIC ?
Most balloon pilots understand the concept of PIC or pilot-in-command. PIC is the designation given to the individual that has accepted the sole responsibility of controlling an aircraft during its operation. Since the PIC is responsible for the safe outcome of a flight, it’s only fair that the PIC also have the final say in decisions made throughout the flight. Based on this protocol, it’s apparent how the safety of the flight would be jeopardized if there were 2 PIC’s on board. Inconsistent planning and indecision would certainly put the flight at risk. Ask anyone who has ever flown with more than 1 pilot in the basket, regardless of the PIC designation.
Now imagine sharing flight control with still another entity, the balloon itself. The good news is that the balloon doesn’t argue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t operate by logical deduction either. I call this phenomenon BIC (Balloon in Command). I’ve known about the concept for years but I have to credit a former student of mine (thanks Deb) for the term. BIC occurs during that time period where the balloon is actually taking the pilot and passengers on its own way. Since the balloon can’t think logical thoughts, this situation can’t be very good. As examples, BIC often occurs after a couple of long burns, after no sequential burns, after a long vent or after some erratic burns. Let’s look at some of these scenarios.
From equilibrium or slight down, the pilot puts in a long burn or two to “offset” the slippage downward. This is usually done quickly, sometimes in order to refocus on a conversation in the basket. As the balloon reacts and gathers momentum upward, the pilot is no longer in control. The balloon forges up, takes whatever turns the winds dictate, and finally deposits the balloon and occupants in a different place, likely going a different direction. Sure, the pilot can vent. However, a pilot that frequents the “BIC Zone” usually realizes that the balloon will likely fly itself to as good a location and direction as he/she usually does. This is because this type of pilot allows the balloon to be in control much of the time. Thus, effective flight planning and decision making become nearly impossible because of the inconsistent outcomes while the balloon is BIC.
Pilots initiating a steep descent to landing by using a vent submit to BIC during part of the descent. I certainly understand that venting towards a landing is necessary in some cases. However, those who approach their final landing from level flight or even a slight up are asking for a longer trip into the BIC Zone as vent use becomes necessary. Once the vent reacts, the balloon takes over. The pilot’s job becomes a timing challenge rather than flying task. He/she must put the exact amount of heat into the balloon that will decelerate it just before it hits the ground. Any obstacles encountered on the way down due to wind shifts will either be hit or the approach aborted with long desperation burns. These desperation burns are another intro into the BIC Zone. When the balloon responds to this type of aborted landing, it takes control for a long while during the rebound. Any good landing areas immediately downwind of the averted landing area will be missed as the balloon enjoys its time of control.
I’ve seen BIC with many students during a descent towards a landing area. The balloon begins to fall, perhaps a little earlier than expected. The pilot tries to decelerate but soon realizes the original flight plan is not recoverable. As the balloon slows, it takes a favorable turn towards another field. The pilot tries to lock into that direction but is slightly behind the curve. The result is that the balloon finally comes to equilibrium a little lower and drifts somewhere else. This is not uncommon for low hour pilots to allow the balloon to takes its own course for short periods of time. The problem is that it can be habit forming and can creep up silently during critical parts of the flight.
The antidote to the “BIC Syndrome” is to constantly be aware of the balloon’s equilibrium status (level, down or up) and precisely where it’s going. Once these skills are applied and mastered, the next step is to decide where you want to go, evaluate if it’s possible, and if so plot a strategy and execute.
Ultimately, if the pilot can determine precisely which way the balloon is going at all times, altitude becomes a secondary issue. For instance, if the balloon is headed directly for the middle of big tree in the field ahead and the pilot notices that suddenly the direction has shifted to the left side of the tree, he/she can most often deduce that there was a small loss (or gain) in altitude that caused the shift.
The way that this kind of precision is developed is by looking forward in flight and picking a landmark that appears to be exactly in center of your line of travel, then focusing on it. You will usually find that your first perception is off a little and you will have to change landmarks that are more in line with your course. You can use tree tops, odd colored grass, barns in the distance etc. It is very important to continuously re-evaluate this line and downwind landmark. For instance you might say “I’m going for the middle of that barn”; “No, the right side of the barn” ; “Actually it’s the tree next to the barn”. During this process, it’s important that you keep some semblance of level flight going. When you finally spot the landmark exactly in line with your track, it will be obvious. There is no side-to-side movement relative to the background of the object. The value of this landmark is that if you continue to focus on it, the very second the balloon shifts tracks due to altitude change or a same level wind shift, you will notice it immediately and can easily adjust. If you fly this way, time spent in the “BIC Zone” will be minimal and you will earn the title of PIC (not shared).