HOW DO YOU LAND A HOT AIR BALLOON?
PICKING A SPOT FOR A LANDING
Learning to judge the descent rate and the time to flare for a smooth
landing is no easy task for the neophyte airplane pilot. But the student
airplane pilot has it easy compared to the new balloon pilot. At least the
student airplane pilot can hit the throttle, pull up the nose, and have a
near-instantaneous go-around. And the student airplane driver can have as
many attempts at landing at the airport as fuel and daylight allows. The
balloon pilot only gets one try per field!
A descent-to-landing in a balloon, or a practice descent to just above
the treetops, can be a nervewracking experience for the new balloon pilot.
Until you learn the fine art of flying by adjusting the rate of vertical
velocity, and not just the vertical speed itself, the trees or the ground
seem to rush up at you until a crash seems imminent. It seems that the
balloon is never going to slow it's descent, and you keep pulling the
blast valve to add more and more heat. Usually, the inevitable result is
the student aeronaut (or rusty licensed one) to breathe a sigh of relief
as the balloon stops descending 50 feet above the treetops or the ground.
But then, muttered curses as all that excess heat so furiously and
frantically added takes the balloon up in an increasingly rapid climb.
Another missed landing field!
Of course, not adding enough heat to properly slow your descent is
interesting too. Your instructor curses this time, blasts the burner (or
both of them if you have two in your balloon) and accuses you of
attempting to "stuff it into the trees" or even of trying to
"brick it into the top of a Volkswagen". (Balloon instructors do
seem to have a more interesting way with words than airplane
Developing a fine touch for descending and leveling off at a spot in
the air one aims for opens up a whole world of possibilities not open to
the airplane pilot. Leaf-picking contests are one popular fun contest at
eastern rallies. (Westerners have tumbleweed dropping contests!) One soon
learns that the tops of trees are generally supple and springy and fun to
play in. (One story has it that a pilot-aeronaut used this knowledge to
good advantage when the engine quit on his airplane. He calmly landed in
the treetops and walked away from the airplane with hardly a
Water landings are also avidly sought by balloonists in small ponds,
lakes, and even rivers, sometimes resulting in magnificent calendar
photos. Proper technique is to just put the bottom inch or two of the
basket in the water. Poor technique can be quite effective in cleaning out
leaves, twigs, and other debris from around one's propane tanks. Really
poor technique can require the assistance of local boaters to retrieve
one's very waterlogged balloon!
When you decide that it is time for your final landing, you look for an
open field ahead of your path which is firm and dry, away from animals and
buildings, and one which is reasonably close to a road where your chase
crew can assist in your retrieval. Landing at the nearest airport is
rarely an option, and the balloon's slow speed would tend to make it
unpopular around an airport pattern except as a random curiosity anyway. A
vitally important criteria for a landing site is that there are no power
lines downwind of the chosen landing spot. Hitting powerlines is the
number one cause of fatalities and severe injuries in ballooning, and a
key rule-of-thumb for balloonists is never to descend over powerlines.
This obviously can complicate an approach to fields near roads. Even a
landing after passing powerlines must be attempted with great caution, as
there may be rotor winds below a tree line which can cause a balloon to
drift back into powerlines overflown on the landing approach.
The final landing at the end of your balloon flight may be a nice,
gentle stand-up landing (where the balloon and it's occupants all end up
upright after the landing), or it may be a rip landing. A rip landing, to
the uninitiated, may look like a controlled crash. To onlookers who know
absolutely nothing about ballooning, it may look like an uncontrolled
crash and could result in unnecessary calls to the police. Whether the
landing is a stand-up or a rip landing depends on the wind velocity at
ground level. In a balloon, you're always landing downwind, and there's no
such thing as landing into the wind!
For a stand-up landing with no chase crew assistance, winds at ground
level have to be almost calm. It may be possible to find calm conditions
in the lee of a stand of trees even when winds above the trees are blowing
up to 10 mph. To dissipate forward speed, a balloon pilot may purposely
allow the balloon's basket (not the fabric!) to drag through treetops, and
then vent out hot air as the balloon breaks loose from the last tree to
drop into the field immediately beyond.
If your chase crew is really good and has actually anticipated your
intentions and flight path, you may have an additional option at a field
that would otherwise be too small to land in. With your chase crew below
you, you can throw down a dropline and have them drag you to a stop or
even pull you to a field off to the side of your track.
If winds at the surface are more than 5 to 10 mph, a rip landing may be
necessary. To make a rip landing, you aim at a spot in the air about ten
feet above the ground on the upwind side of a suitable, long open field.
With the balloon over this spot, you pull the red ripline, pulling out the
velcro or spring riptop or pulling down the parachute top fully,
immediately dumping most of the hot air out of the balloon. The landing
will be firm, and your passengers must be warned to hang on and to expect
to be bounced around a bit. And you had better be sure of your intentions,
as a go-around from a rip landing attempt is not possible. With a
combination of luck and skill, a rip landing will be firm with little
dragging along the ground, and the balloon's envelope will collapse to the
ground downwind of the basket. While all this sounds absolutely awful, it
can be a great deal of fun, with pilot and crew sprawled all over each
other and laughing and cracking jokes when the balloon has stopped!
PACKING UP BALLOONS AND POPPING CHAMPAGNE CORKS
The ballooning experience doesn't end with the landing. After the
landing, it's time to pack up the balloon, hopefully with the assistance
of your able and on-the-scene chase crew. Packing up the balloon is
physically strenuous work. First, with at least one person on the crown
line to guide the balloon's deflation, the burners are turned off and the
deflation port (springtop or parachute top) is pulled open. The balloon's
fabric envelope slowly sinks to the ground, as the crew helps the pilot to
tip over the basket and keep the skirt fabric off the still hot burners.
The envelope must have residual hot air squeezed out of it (a very
strenuous task!) The spring top is resecured, and then the envelope is
packed into it's bag with two people holding the bag open and two more
lifting up the fabric. Getting the balloon out of the field is work too.
The envelope in it's storage bag weighs two hundred pounds or more, the
empty basket may weigh an additional three hundred pounds. A wise and
capable pilot will pick a field where the chase vehicle can be backed
right up to the packed up balloon!
It's also time for the pilot to seek out the landowners to express his
or her thanks for the use of their property and to present them with the
traditional bottle of champagne, a tradition going back to the earliest
balloonists in France. Most landowners will at worst be ambivalent about
your landing on their property, and many, fortunately, will be thrilled
and even honored by your presence. For unhappy landowners, the surprise of
being presented with the champagne may often change their frowns to
After all the work is done, it's time to pop the cork on another bottle
of champagne to toast another magnificent flight, to welcome first time
passengers into the ranks of aeronauts, and to salute your chase crew's
Champagne or no champagne, it's truly an intoxicating way to fly!