When a balloon pilot runs out of propane and hot air, it’s time for a landing—no matter what lies below. That’s why balloonists keep a little fuel in the propane tanks just in case. There’s no feeling like being out of fuel and headed straight toward a Saguaro cactus or a radio transmitter antenna as you approach to land. If you have fuel left in the tanks, a few seconds of burn will slow the descent just enough to clear a dangerous obstacle. That’s why pilots land with as much as 40 percent of their fuel still in the tank. It just doesn’t make sense to push the limits of safety.
When the time and location are right for a landing, the pilot begins to let the air cool in the envelope. The balloon starts down, and with short blasts on the burner, the balloon enters a controlled descent of about 600 feet per minute, give or take 200 feet per minute. When the balloon is very close to landing, the pilot uses the burner to slow the descent rate to a gentle 100 feet per minute when it’s time to touch down.
When selecting a landing spot, pilots have to keep two important questions in mind: Is there enough clear space downwind for the envelope to deflate, and can the chase
crew get to the balloon from a nearby road without too much trouble? (We’ll take a closer look at the chase crew later in this chapter.)
Almost any obstacle holds the potential for danger during a hot-air balloon landing. In the West and Southwest cattle fences that are nearly invisible from the air suddenly look pretty threatening during the last part of a landing approach, especially if the fence is made of barbed wire. And power lines seem to be everywhere. Seasoned pilots learn to see these obstacles well in advance and make smart decisions ahead of time.
When you see a balloon landing in anything but a calm wind, you can bet the pilot has been planning his approach for 10 minutes or more. From hundreds of feet in the air, a pilot has to select a series of possible landing sites depending on how the wind might behave near the ground. Then, having memorized some alternatives and taking a mental note of power lines, fences, cattle herds, and other dangers, he begins a descent that could cover three miles or more.
When considering whether there is enough downwind space for the envelope to deflate, the area required depends on the wind speed. If the wind is fairly calm, the balloon will descend nearly vertically and the gondola, will often remain upright after landing. In such a case, the landing should be planned for a clearing that provides at least 70 feet or so of clear space downwind so that the envelope can be conveniently laid out, deflated, and prepared to be packed away.
If the wind is blowing much faster than a couple of miles per hour, the pilot has to plan for a larger clearing in which to land. That’s because the wind will drag the balloon over the ground for some distance after it lands. When it’s windy, a balloon could take as much as 1,000 feet to come to a full stop with the deflated envelope laid out along the ground.