Hot Air Balloon Competition 101

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Hot Air Balloon Competition 101 – Hot Air Balloon Competition For The Layman

Have you ever seen a blue sky filled with hot air balloons?

Their rainbow colors expand creating a scene that can take your breath away!

It’s hard to believe when watching them float lazily up and away that they are competing in balloon races.

It must be the slowest race in the world!

Can you just imagine the start of the race?

Ready!  Set!  Float!

A great sight, but perhaps not very exciting. . .

The fact is a hot air balloon race is not a race in the way one might expect.  There is no waving of a starter’s flag or firing of a starter’s pistol.  The balloons don’t actually “race” at all.  A balloon race is actually a navigation contest – a competition to determine who can best navigate their balloon to one or more locations.  A competitive balloon flight is usually about an hour long, during which the participants compete to see who most accurately completes one or more tasks.  The competitor achieving the best result in a task receives 1,000 points, and all other competitors receive between 1,000 and 0 points, based on their performance compared to the winner.  The champion is the competitor who accumulates the most points over the event.  To declare a champion, there usually has to be at least two (2) flights and three (3) tasks completed.

Wind speed and direction varies with altitude.  For example, the wind might be from the south at ground level but change to be from the west then from the northwest at higher altitudes.  Pilots steer their balloons by changing altitude to take advantage of the different wind layers.

The 2015 Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship , September 24 – 27 , is planning for 7 competitive flights (weather depending) and the champion will earn the right to represent Canada at the 222nd FAI World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Saga, Japan Oct 30 – Nov 7, 2016.

More Detail:

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the worldwide governing body for air sports.  It regulates competition for all forms of aircraft including aerostats (balloons), fixed wing, rotary wing (helicopters), parachutes, sailplanes and hang gliders.  The FAI is associated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and functions similarly.

The FAI Ballooning Commission (Comité International d’Aérostation or CIA) is the worldwide governing body for international ballooning championships, competitions and record activities.

The Aero Club of Canada (ACC) represents the FAI in Canada.  The Canadian Balloon Association (CBA) is a member of the ACC and represents Canadian balloonists to the CIA.

Transport Canada regulates ballooning in Canada.  Balloon pilots are licensed pilots and balloons are aircraft.  As with all Canadian pilots and aircraft, pilots and balloons must meet strict certification requirements and balloons are inspected and re-certified at least annually.

The competitive events in a balloon competition are called tasks.  Several tasks can be specified for each flight.  The tasks for a particular flight are determined before the flight begins, after assessment of the weather and other factors.  Competition flights require pilots to exercise skill in maneuvering their balloons over a set course with goals, targets, scoring areas, time and distance limits.

Good results in competition tasks are achieved using a combination of winds at various altitudes to fly in the direction of a goal and accurately approach the target within the designated competition area.  Balloons do not land on the target itself.  Pilots of the balloons drop markers onto or as close to the target as they can fly.  The markers are small sandbags with streamers attached.  Some balloons will skim just above the ground, while others may be 1000’s of feet in the sky when they release their marker.  The distance between the spot where the marker lands and the target is the result.  The balloonist whose marker lands the shortest distance from the center of the target is awarded the most points.  Other tasks involve flying the minimum or maximum distance in a set time, achieving the greatest change in direction and other tests of flying skill.

Important Factors in Competition

Catching The Wind: Balloons can only go where the wind takes them – they cannot go against or into the wind.  The speed and direction of the wind usually varies, often significantly, with altitude and time.  Pilots must accurately gauge the speed and direction of the winds at various altitudes, and be able to predict changes.

Reading a Map: Balloon competitions take place over a wide area – an area about 50 km X 50 km.  Pilots must have a good understanding of the competition area and must be able to gauge the effect of topographical features on the wind drafts resulting.

Teamwork: From Inflation to Recovery, It’s Teamwork!

A hot air balloon flight requires the coordination of a team.  Without their teammates, the pilot could not freely practice their sport.  The retrieve crew helps with balloon setup and inflation.  Once the balloon has taken off, the teammates maintain visual and/or radio contact with the pilot and follow the balloon up to where it lands.  Once the hot air balloon has landed, the retrieve crew obtains landowner permission prior to entering private property, proceeds to the balloon and helps with the pack-up and recovery.

Balloon competitions can be very demanding and exciting to be involved in.  They add a completely new aspect to balloon flying.  Some competitors work as teams and even use computer programmers to help them forecast and plan their flights.  The use of a GPS (Global Positioning System) to assist with navigation and goal selection is now very common in competitions at all levels.  Balloon competitions have now come a long way – competitors must often have to drop a marker within 1 or 2 meters from the center of a target to be the winner.