Confidence – Hot Air Balloon Instruction Series

What is the difference between 2 hot air balloon students with the same exact experience level with only 3 hours of time? Probably not much. However, there is a very powerful force growing within both of them as they train that might make all of the difference in their skill levels shortly. The attribute I am referring to is confidence. Without confidence, learning progress is slow. While I don’t profess to be a clinical psychologist, I have seen the difference that confidence in flight makes on a hot air balloon student’s learning ability. This confidence is especially important after the student becomes a certificated hot air balloon pilot and begins his/her career in the real world of balloon flying. This is where the bulk of learning takes place.

Confidence, as it relates to flying hot air balloons, is an attitude which allows an individual to have positive but realistic views of themselves and their balloon flying skills.  A confident balloon pilot trusts his/her own abilities and believes that within reason he will be able to do what he wishes, plans, and expects.

Is confidence important? You bet it is! It is that frame of mind that allows you as a balloon pilot to make a flight decision quickly and not second guess the choice. Why is this important? Because once you make a decision as a balloon pilot, it is crucial to focus on its execution and the desired outcome.  There is little room for doubts or questions. In a critical situation, doubts and questions lead to fear and tension which progress into bad decision making. The great thing about confident decision making is that it does not necessarily promote tunnel vision or execution at all costs. In fact, many times it becomes clear very early that plans need to change quickly. This assessment is made possible by the uninterrupted focus on the execution and desired outcome of a decision.

Confidence also plays a large role in the execution of hot air balloon maneuvers. Making intentional approaches with a large hot air balloon into tight landing areas requires a great deal of confidence. In the case of low hour balloon pilots, fear plays an important role in this maneuver as their decision is usually made because of low fuel, degrading weather, and/or previous missed approaches.

I find new hot air balloon students very reluctant to get within 30’ of powerlines even though they are demonstrating great altitude control. They don’t yet trust themselves or the hot air balloon.  I recall my first few approaches into a short field between trees stands using the dead air down low to slow down. This takes supreme trust to believe that the hot air balloon which was traveling at 10+ mph  above the tops would not impale itself on the downwind trees.

If confidence is a good thing, how do you get it?  First, an attitude adjustment may be necessary. As I stated above, confidence, as it relates to flying hot air balloons, is an attitude which allows an individual to have positive but realistic views of themselves and their balloon flying skills. The exact opposite of this definition is depending on the approval of others to feel good about themselves or their balloon piloting skills. It is quite natural and acceptable for a student to be motivated to please his/her hot air balloon instructor during the training phase.

However, it is important for the balloon student to transition those motivations towards personal goals and performance as soon as possible either during the hot air balloon training or immediately after they receive their hot air balloon certification.  There is little room for focus when the student is trying to execute a plan while at the same time wondering if this is what the hot air balloon instructor wants.

Diligent practice also increases confidence. This is different from just flying the hot air balloon. It is important to rehearse skills during every balloon flight even if only for 10 or 15 minutes. This could be in the form of contour flying at 6” for a stretch or making steep descents to a target. I personally pick a landing “spot” on every balloon flight where I don’t have to walk or reposition the hot air balloon to deflate. The point is to set a goal that pushes your skills, and go for it.

I think real confidence comes with quantum successes.  For example, someone that has never made a high wind landing in a hot air balloon will feel a very special exhilaration from executing the first successful one. Making a tight approach amongst obstacles is usually accompanied by a reasonable amount of fear initially, but making that first one out of pure choice is what provides the real sense of accomplishment and resultant confidence. In order to experience these “quantum successes” it is necessary to allow the possibility of them to occur. You have to get up and fly the balloon. I’m not suggesting that you fly your balloon in any conditions.

However, it is prudent to take small chances if you will, rather than not fly the balloon at all. What I mean by small chances are those situations that you have considered carefully given your own limitations, and feel that there is no severe risk and you also have a handle on the fundamentals of hot air balloon control. Ask any experienced pilot. The confidence in executing tough maneuvers in a hot air balloon is first learned by necessity, not by planned practice of those types of maneuvers. What I mean is that my first short field high wind landing was executed because I had to get down or else… My fifth one was because I chose the spot rather than risk the unknowns ahead. That is the freedom that confidence allows.

After 30 years of flying a hot air balloon I am still cautious and tense when planning a launch in less than perfect conditions. However, confidence gained through the years allow me to keep a clear mind during preparation and launch of my balloon while always keeping keen eye out for signs to abort. In fact my go no/go decision in marginal conditions is usually a go if I am interested in flying. That is, I am thinking clearly about the planning and balloon launch execution at hand (no second guessing mind clutter) but clearly ready to abort the balloon inflation at any time if signs suddenly tell me to quit.

These signs may be sudden sustained gusts, significant changes in wind direction, visible lightning in the distance, or an uncharacteristic distortion of the first hot air balloon that took off. The point is that confidence allows the balloon pilot the freedom to use all of his/her faculties in the safe execution of a difficult balloon launch or critical decision, thus propagating more confidence with a successful outcome.

Know your limitations but don’t be afraid to test yourself a little. The confidence gained will make you more assured in your hot air balloon and lead to better decisions and more fun.