Blowin’ in the Wind
Once in the air, the pilot controls the balloon’s altitude by firing the burners to rise into the winds blowing in one direction or permitting the balloon to cool in order to descend into the winds blowing in another direction.
The wind is everything to a balloon pilot. It determines not only the distance a balloon will travel in the time it takes it to use all its propane fuel, but it also determines where the pilot should take off from. That’s right—a balloon pilot doesn’t necessarily start his flight planning by thinking about where he will land. Sometimes the planning process runs backward.
Let’s say a hot-air balloon pilot wants to make a flight that lasts about an hour, and he wants to land in Uncle Herman’s pasture. The planning process doesn’t begin with the question of where to take off from. Instead, the pilot, using the best weather information available from government agencies and reports from other pilots, starts his planning by figuring out the winds at different altitudes and tracing backward. Based on the winds near the ground and the winds aloft, where would a balloon have to take off from to fly over Uncle Herman’s spread one hour later?
Once the answer has been calculated carefully, the balloon pilot can lay out his maps and begin to calculate his takeoff point. That’s where he and his crew drive their trucks, vans, and trailers and begin the task of launching the balloon.
Other times, a balloon pilot decides his course based on where he wants to take off from and how long he wants to stay aloft. Using maps and carefully studying wind information published by the weather service, the pilot plots the location where the balloon will probably come down. With an X marking the spot, he discusses driving routes with his ground crew, and a plan is laid out to get the envelope rolled up and get everything stowed in the chase truck.
But in most cases, pilots and chase crews simply enjoy the mystery of not knowing where a flight will take them. They find a convenient launch site, send up a small helium balloon to test the direction of the wind above the ground, and take off. Once in the air, the pilot begins planning his route and, later, identifying good landing sites. Meanwhile, on the ground, the chase crew does its level best to keep up.
If you own property that hat a prominent tree fine on the upwind side of a broad pasture with no tall obstructions, you can expect to get a call by a pack of balloonists one day. The protection from wind offered by the trees and the open takeoff area are perfect for ballooning, and once local balloon pilots find such a place, they often impose on the owner to let them fly there. If you’re one of the owners, make the best of it: Demand a free ride now and then, and don’t forget the champagne payoffl
Even with all their modern technology and government safety regulations, balloons still carry an aura of leisure and romance.
(Allen Matheson, Photohome. com)