Competition ballooning

The urge to compete in a hot air balloon may not mean breaking records. More commonly, pilots wish to test their flying skills against the skills of others in competition tasks. Hot Air Balloon Fiestas are often a competition as well, with overseas pilots regularly attending to test their skills.

Non-balloonists are often puzzled by the thought of competition ballooning. "How can pilots compete when they are all just carried along by the wind?" But in fact, competition ballooning is a test of pilot accuracy.
Each pilot uses the variation in wind direction with altitude to steer towards a target. The ability to hold the balloon at a precise level, combined with a solid understanding of weather, are the keys to success. It requires great skill and concentration to be applied accurately, especially as there are many balloons 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 or ignore task rules in an attempt to reach a target.

Competition ballooning
Hot air balloons over lake

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 equipment, he may receive critical information from his ground crew on wind speed, altitude and direction on the area he is about to fly into.
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 a set minimum and maximum distance, giving the coordinates to the observer before taking off.

Other popular tasks include the Fly-In, where pilots chose their own launch point (within limits) and fly towards a common goal.

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 invaluable.

As well as the pilots and balloon crew, competition ballooning involves a team of observers, who measure the results of the marker drops and watch out for rule infractions.

Although perceived as not a physical sport in an athletic sense, a balloon competition may involve a week of getting up before dawn, flying twice a day and not getting enough sleep. 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.