The urge to compete may not manifest itself in a desire to break records. More commonly pilots wish to test their flying skills against the skills of others in direct competition. The Hot Air Balloon Fiesta is one of those competitions with overseas pilots as well so this is a truly international sport.
Non-balloonists are often perplexed by the notion of competition ballooning. How they ask, can pilots compete when they are all just carried along by the wind? But in fact competition ballooning is a test of flying accuracy. Each pilot attempts to reach a target, using the variation in wind with altitude to steer towards the desired point. The ability to hold the balloon at a precise level, combined with an understanding of the invisible vagaries of the breeze, are the keys to success, and require great concentration to be applied effectively, especially as there are many balloons all around you trying to do the same thing.
The pilot marks the exact position of the balloon in relation to the target by dropping a marker – a small bag weighted with sand and carrying a long nylon streamer to make it visible.
To give variety and increase the difficulty for pilots, the Competition Director may include several different tasks in the same flight, each with its own set of complicated rules. As well as testing flying ability, these tasks penalise pilots who do not understand the subtleties of the rules or ignore task rules in an attempt to reach a target.
To best understand, the simplest task is the Judge Declared Goal. The Competition Director sets a common goal; to which all pilots attempt to fly from a common launch point a set distance away. The goal may be a target such as a large cross on the ground or it may be the centre of a road junction, defined by a map reference. The individual pilot may have the benefit of watching the track of balloons approaching the target before deciding on the best line of approach or if he has the right technical and financial backing he may receive critical information from his ground crew on wind speed, altitude and direction on the area he is about to fly into. And results of this type of task are often very accurate – a few centimetres from the centre of the target after a flight of several kilometres.
The Pilot Declared Goal is similar; except that each pilot selects their own goal within set minimum and maximum distances giving the co-ordinates to the observer before take off.
Other popular tasks include the Fly In. where pilots chose their own launch point (within limits) and fly towards a common goal:
the Fly On, where the pilot taking into account the changing wind patterns declares a goal by writing its grid reference on the marker dropped at a previous goal. These and other more complicated tasks, which may involve limited scoring areas, may be set in combinations on the same flight.
Whatever tasks are set, the pilot has to fly the balloon safely, read the winds, obey the rules, steer towards the target, read the map, remember which colour of marker applies to which target, and all the time watch out for the other balloons in the competition. Such competition flights are a true test of airmanship; occasionally luck may play a part, but the top positions at major championships, show that skill and experience are being measured.
As well as the pilots, navigators/tacticians and ground crews, competition ballooning involves a team of observers, who measure the results of the marker drops and watch out for rule infractions; the Competition Director sets the tasks for each flight: and a team of officials debrief the observers at the end of each flight.
Although perceived as not a physical sport in an athletic sense, a balloon competition may involve a week of getting up before dawn, flying and refuelling twice each day, and getting to bed around midnight each night. This is physically and mentally exhausting for everyone involved and gives the lie to those who claim that competition ballooning is not a “real” sport.