Balloon Lingo – Talk the Talk
To enjoy any sport, it always helps to understand the terms used by those who are involved.
Baggie—a 3 1/2 ounce bag of sand, rice, beans or corn meal dropped by the balloon pilots to hit a target on the ground. Closest to the center of the 30 foot “X” wins the most points for that task.
Basket—the part that carries the pilot and passengers. Most are made of woven rattan with a plywood bottom.
Balloon Glow—While balloons fly only during the daylight hours, they often gather after dark to use their propane burners as huge night lights, causing their balloons to “glow.” The balloons are tethered to the ground (or the bumper of their chase vehicle) and act like giant “fire flies” as their lights twinkle in the dark.
Chase Vehicle—the van or truck following along on the ground as the balloon flies overhead. The crew helps the balloonist when launching or landing. No balloon goes out without a chase crew.
Envelope—The large balloon part of the craft. Made of rip-stop nylon or polyester, it lasts about 500 flying hours. It is made of the same material as parachutes and can serve the same purpose, if needed.
Helium—An inert gas used by balloon pilots for the small “pibal” balloons they release prior to a flight to judge the wind directions aloft. Sometimes pilots use a stream of shaving cream when in the air to judge the wind direction below them.
Kissing—When two balloons bump in the air.
Load Tapes—Straps of fabric running vertically and horizontally on the balloon envelope. They support the weight of the basket and passengers.
Marker—A baggie after it is on the ground.
Pibals—Two or three small helium-filled balloons released prior to flight to test the winds. Propane—Gas used to fuel the open flame burner which heats the air that keeps the balloon in the air.
Splash and dash—A method used by balloonists to change direction. Touching down on a body of water and then immediately lifting off again will often change the direction of flight.
Tether—A thick rope that keeps the balloon attached to its chase vehicle. Often pilots will give “Tether rides” taking passengers up just the length of the rope and then back to earth.
Ballooning is an Old Sport with a Modern Twist
Ballooning is an ancient sport. It’s been going on for over 2,000 years, beginning in 300BC when the Greek mathematician Archimedes determined the principle of ballooning—the idea that less dense air will rise and heated air expands which makes it less dense. Humans first took flight in balloons about 800 AD. The early pilots were caught flying over Lyons, France and were called sorcerers and put to death. In 1783, brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier tested a theory that smoky hot air would lift a payload by sending a sheep, a chicken and a duck on a short hot air balloon flight.
The sheep kicked the chicken and broke its wing, hence the first hot air balloon accident. The first American balloon flight was January 9, 1793 over Philadelphia. Pilot Jean Pierre Blanchard carried a letter from George Washington, a permission slip of sorts, in case he landed in unfriendly territory. Balloons were used as observer aircraft during the Civil War and by Napoleon’s Army, for the study of atmospheric conditions, and for the first aerial photographs of the US. In the 1950s, recreational balloon flights became popular. For three years, 1992-1993-1994, the US National Hot Air Balloon Championships were held in Middletown.
Balloon Competition Tasks
Competition tasks may be one or a combination of two or more challenges for balloon pilots during a single flight. Many target areas will be set at roadway intersections unobstructed by trees or power lines.
PDG—Pilot Declared Goal—Each pilot selects a map coordinate as a personal goal. The pilot writes the map coordinates and a
description of the goal and turns it in to the race officials before the flight begins. Pilots then launch all together from the same area and attempt to reach their personal goal to throw their markers as near that goal as possible.
JDG—Judge Declared Goal—All pilots launch from the same general area with boundaries set by the officials. Each pilot will attempt to reach the same target and many will arrive at the same time to jockey for position.
MJDG—Multiple Judge Declared Goal—Several targets will be set in the area. Each pilot will choose a goal to use as a personal target. Pilots choose a target while in flight and drop a marker as near as possible to the center of the “X”.
ELBO—Each pilot will fly from the same general launch area and attempt to achieve the greatest change of flight direction during the flight. Pilots will take off from spot A, drop a marker at point B and again at point C. By drawing an angle using the three points, the pilot with the smallest angle in flight will score highest.
HNH—Hare and Hound. A single balloon will fly away to land and place a target on the ground. All
other balloons will attempt to fly to the same spot to drop a marker on the hare’s target.
FIT—Fly In Task—Pilots find their own launch areas and attempt to reach a set point. Maximum and minimum launch limits are set. For instance, all competitors may be required to travel at least 5 miles from the goal to launch but no more than 10 miles.
FOT—Fly On Task—Each pilot declares a goal to which he or she flies after dropping a marker in another task site.
GBM—Gordon Bennett Memorial—Pilots attempt to drop markers within a designated area with definite boundaries. No points are scored for those who do not land a marker within the defined area.
WSD—Water Ship Down—A two-part task, pilots will find their own launch sites and fly to a target.
At a specified time, a hare balloon will take off adjacent to a target. Pilots must drop one marker at the target location and then fly on to the Hare’s landing spot to drop a second marker.
MAX—Maximum Distance—Pilots must drop a marker within a defined scoring area. They choose their own launch sites as far as possible away from the target. The pilot scoring highest on this task will be the one who travels the longest distance and is still able to drop a marker within the scoring area.
MIN—Minimum Distance—Pilots will attempt to fly the shortest distance within a definite period of time. Many will stay near the ground for this task to avoid higher winds at higher altitudes. An additional penalty for touching the ground during the task is imposed.
CRAT—Calculate Rate Approach Task. Pilots must drop markers at a target within a limited time period. Points are scored for only those pilots whose markers are dropped within the scoring area during the very short period of time.
LRT—Land Run Tasks—Pilots will attempt to achieve the greatest area of a triangle from the launch point to two other points.
STFT—Shortest Flight Task—Competitors fly from a designated launch area and drop a marker in a scoring area. Winner of this task will have the shortest distance from launch point to marker drop point.
MDDD—Maximum Distance Double Drop—Pilots must fly from a designated launch area and drop their markers as far apart as possible within the scoring area.
MNDD—Minimum Double Drop—Competitors fly from a designated launch area and drop their markers as close together as possible in different scoring areas.
Best Balloon Watching Tricks
The best viewing spot is at The Ohio Challenge in Smith Park. Evening flights will launch from Smith Park/Middletown Regional Airport and fly elsewhere to accomplish their assigned competition tasks. Morning flights will launch at a location away from the field and attempt to fly to targets at Smith Park/Hook Field. The special shape and Fiesta balloons will fly out of the site in the mornings as other balloons attempt to fly in. Balloons not in competition and available for full balloon rides are called Fiesta.
To earn points, balloon pilots drop a 3 1/2 ounce bag of beans with
their pilot number on the streamer as near as possible to the center of a ground target—a huge fabric “X” at the target site chosen for that flight. There are many variations on the task(s) assigned at the pre-flight briefing—shortest flight, longest flight, multiple drop zones, hare and hound¼. The site announcer will explain the tasks during each flight time.
Ballooning is a sport that does not adhere to the clock and launches happen when the wind speeds are best. Balloons fly in the early morning and early evening, just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the winds are lightest—5 to 10 miles per hour. A breeze may feel good on a warm day but it may mean that a balloon cannot fly. Sit back, relax and enjoy the day. Ballooning is a gentle sport that goes where the wind blows and only where the wind blows. If you find that balloons cannot fly, there is still much to do at the Challenge. Safety is the primary reason flights are cancelled.
Balloons are huge bags of hot air much like giant parachutes and even if ripped, will float gently back to earth using their parachute qualities. Only a very large hole in the top would cause trouble.
Balloon envelope designs are chosen by the pilot. Special shape balloons are generally the most expensive to make and sometimes the most difficult to fly. While balloon designs are generally not trademark designs, it would be considered a breach of etiquette for a pilot to copy another pilot’s design—except for corporate balloon fleets which carry a sponsor trademark.
To fly, a balloon pilot spreads out the fabric envelope on the ground, partially inflates it with cold air using portable fans and then heats the air inside with an open flame propane burner. When the air heats, it rises and soon the balloon, with its wicker basket attached, will begin to stand upright.
When the air inside the balloon is heated enough, the balloon rises from the ground carrying its pilot and passengers on a very gentle trip through the heavens.
Balloon flight is relatively quiet—punctuated only by the “whoosh” of the propane burners heating the air periodically to maintain a certain altitude. Balloons steer by going up and down to “catch” an air current traveling the direction the pilot wishes to go. Air at different levels will take different directions. The skill in ballooning is in being able to read the weather, the maps and wind currents to select a launch site that allows the pilot to maneuver his or her craft as close as possible to a target on the ground.
As the balloons float above, the support crews on the ground are following along in their chase vehicles. There are no round trips in ballooning (except at Albuquerque, NM where some pilots can “fly the box”.) To return to base, the ground crew must meet the pilot at the end of the flight, help remove the heated air, pack up the balloon, load it on the truck or trailer and bring the pilot and passengers back to their base.
Do not “chase” balloons. Traffic accidents happen when drivers attempt to follow balloons in the sky without watching the traffic on the ground.
If you have an open area on your property, away from trees or electric wires, and welcome a balloon crew to use that spot to launch or land, place a bed sheet on the ground at the location you are offering. That is the universal welcome sign for hot air balloon pilots.
If a balloon should land near you, please keep a safe distance from the craft until the crew has secured the balloon and basket. There are no brakes or steering wheels on balloons and sometimes they will bounce after they first touchdown. Do not follow a balloon onto private property. While balloon crews attempt to obtain permission to land and take off, that permission does not include the general public.