Shortcuts and Responsibilities

If you investigated the source of all the rules and safety guidelines associated with flying a balloon, I think you would find that they originated from some sort of accident or incident in the past. This is a natural progression associated with any activity involving risk.

Activities like flying at noon on what seems to be a calm summer day or going up with “nearly full” tanks eventually become hard lessons when experienced first hand. As a student, you may have noticed that your instructor stressed some things that didn’t seem particularly dangerous or the chance of its occurrence was remote. It was very likely that your instructor had experienced the trauma of that kind of problem and it is very difficult to forget and not pass on. I have a few of those pet peeves myself. The benefit of experiencing those problems in the flesh is that you understand (I hope) the entire cause/effect chain.

When a student is told not to do something “because it’s dangerous” or is taught a procedure with precautions built in, many times the real concept is missed. Let’s take for example the simultaneous refueling of multiply fuel cylinders in a basket. The safe protocol is to refuel one at a time. Why? Because with multiple fills there will be a greater collection of vapor in the basket during the process and if 2 tanks fill at exactly the same time there may be significant additional liquid-vapor added to the mixture if the spit valves are not attended to quickly. I teach both methods. The reason is because after the student gets into the real world of balloon events and general flying, he/she will certainly see someone else filling simultaneously and decide to try it too.

I would rather there be an understanding of the responsibilities associated with the “shortcut” than to leave it unresolved. The responsibilities are to insure that the spit valves are shut with one quick twist even if 3 spurt at once. This requires uninterrupted focus during refueling (this should be a given anyway), knowledge of which way and how much twist to turn off each bleeder valve and proper physical positioning to reach the open valve(s) quickly. The basket is obviously the best vantage point to perform these operations but it’s a no-no to fuel from the inside. The basket interior collects propane vapor and there are just too many ways to create an ignition source if you are moving around inside. Can a shortcut/responsibility scenario be devised for standing in the basket during refueling? The answer is no.

There are 2 reasons. Before any shortcuts can be taken, the gravity and odds of a failure must be assessed. It’s obvious that an explosion in the basket would be catastrophic and be high on the gravity list.  Is there any way to make the risk nominal? Even after removing every conceivable ignition source, a static charge from dissimilar materials while moving around in the basket could set the propane vapor off. The bottom line is that this procedure should be performed with all due caution and never shortcutted. If you tend to gab with the propane attendant, it might be prudent to fill one tank at a time.

Many of us take “shortcuts” and maintain a comfort level because we understand the particular process and have taken into account all the unplanned possibilities and their corrective actions. The problem occurs when another crew, student or pilot witnesses the “shortcut” process and decides he/she will implement it because of its apparent efficiency, without the understanding of what can go wrong.

I inflate with 1 crew person on a standard weather day. I use that person to hold the mouth open while I inflate out of the bag. Once the top is put in and the balloon has enough cold air, I motion for my lone crew person to run and take over the crown duties. Our wind here is calm here in the mornings and this process works very well, most of the time. A pilot watching this operation might think this process is simple and plan to implement it without further thought. This would not be wise. There are a number of things that have to be done with precision to make this work well every time.

However the biggest “responsibility” in this shortcut occurs while tabbing in the top. The crown line is unattended while the balloon is nearly full of cold air and is at risk for a wind reversal (common in the mountains). My focus is split between tabbing and sensing any subtle movement in the top of the envelope. At the first sign of the top flattening out (it usually still feels calm), I quickly grab the crown line and assess whether the reversal wind is increasing or if it was just a puff. At that point, I usually call my trusty crew person to the crown anyway, just to be sure.

While this system has always worked for me without disaster, I have seen 2 others try it and eventually end up with a gift wrapped chase truck or envelope damage because they didn’t assume the responsibility of watching the envelope carefully while the crown was unattended.

Shortcuts are handy if you understand the process and assume the responsibilities necessary for immediate resolution in the case of failure. When a student or another pilot mimics your shortcut process, they often don’t get the full package. Even if you discuss the possible ramifications with the second pilot/student, when the process goes to its third or forth pilot by means of example, there is little chance the original safeguards will still be in place. What is the answer?  There is no good one that I know.

My personal philosophy dictates that I keep my ballooning practices along the guidelines of normal standard operating procedures while flying with other balloons with the exception of a few benign personal processes. However, when I am flying in the commercial or competitive arena, I am thinking outside the box. When a shortcut opportunity appears, I immediately evaluate it against the gravity and odds parameters and if it passes the litmus test, I go for it.

Remember, for every shortcut you take, there are responsibilities required. Keep safe and keep thinking!