The Hot Air Ballooning Olympics

Did you know that there was such an event? Probably not, but I’m sure that you are saying to yourself right now, “Watching balloons fly is kind of like watching paint dry. They just float with the wind, so how can you possibly compete in a balloon?”

The answer is fairly simple, but the actual execution is far more complex. Yes, the wind pushes you along, but the wind can vary quite a bit for every 100 feet of altitude above the surface of the earth. So, when you mix changeable winds with altitude with a bunch of competitive pilots, a simple answer promotes great and sometimes intense competition, especially when you are competing on an international level.

That’s just what I did this last September in Hofkirchen, Austria. This village is the future home of the 2008 World Hot Air Balloon Championships. The World Championships are held every 2 years in a host city, chosen by bid, much like the Olympics. In September of 2007 Hofkirchen was also the host for the Austrian National Championships. Balloon pilots who were qualified for the 2008 World Championships event were invited to attend and compete in this event where it would also be called the World Test Event. This brought a number of world-class pilots to Austria to practice flying for next year’s event.

Even though the primary purpose of this event surrounded picking a National Champion for Austria, there was quite a bit of excitement related to the test event. This event was the first to use an American Championship Director and the first to use some of the new Global Positioning System invisible targets in the sky. This introduced the use of WAAS-enabled GPS’s that the officials attached to each balloon for official record keeping and scoring. The GPS’s were downloaded after the flight, and the scores were tallied automatically. This method of scoring is fairly new to international balloon competition, and the science becomes more accurate every year.

Hofkirchen is located in the southeastern foothills of the Alps, about 150 kilometers south of Vienna. Like most rural towns in Austria, Hofkirchen is very small, but the competition area encompassed over 900 square kilometers. The competition area included over 250 pre-set targets, some of which required flight over 3000 foot mountains and through deep valleys. The prevailing light but steerable winds, many times, caused over 50 balloons to converge on single targets from several different directions and altitudes. In one case, I found myself blocked from the target by another balloon, therefore, I had to throw my target marker (baggie) completely over the other balloon’s envelop (fabric portion) so that it would drop on the other side toward the target. I got a great score, and the other pilot later asked me if it was me that had thrown the marker. (He could not see me from his vantage point below his own envelope).

For each flight the Event Director might specify as many as 5 different “tasks” or events to be flown during that flight. Some of these tasks required the pilots to find winds in completely opposite directions from their first task or two. Our max altitude was 5500 ft. MSL, so maneuvering vertically at high rates of ascent and descent was important. The newer elongated racing balloons can climb and descend at more than 1500 feet per minute. That’s quite fast for a balloon and can be a little unnerving. The officials pay especially close attention to this activity so as to prevent mid-air collisions and possible incidents because of the rapid closure rates. I have gone by a balloon at a closure rate of 1000 feet per minute, and you can actually feel the air pressure change around you.

During this event, which lasted 8 days, we flew to 26 different designated targets. The competition was intense, but for the most part, the weather cooperated with one exception. During one particular morning, the weather officer did not properly evaluate a small system of precipitation and gust frontal activity. About half of the balloons got into the air prior to this system reaching the flying area, myself included. I found myself reaching speeds of up to 45 km per hour at around 100 feet of altitude with a gust factor of at least 10 knots. For a balloon, this is considerable. I climbed right away to avoid turbulence close to the ground. It also started raining, which has little effect on a new balloon, as it will shed the water, but it made it almost impossible to continue to compete. The task was immediately cancelled and everyone found a place to put it down, but for a while there, it got interesting.

The tasks we flew were quite varied. Targets are traditionally either a large, cloth X placed on the ground or a road intersection; however, we also had a variety of GPS-based tasks. One was the designation of an area with a set boundary. Your score was determined by how long you could stay within this area at various altitudes. The winds provided great angles of up to 150 degrees, so you could just zigzag in the box, building points. You had to exit that box within a specific time and cross a specific meridian line to start another task or you got a “no result” on the follow-up task. Guess what happened to me? Yup, I missed the follow-up task by 23 seconds.

Another fun task was the elbow task. This encompasses the measurement of a change of flight direction from task one’s target, over task two’s target and on to a third target or simply a GPS track change, measuring the angle of that change of direction. Sometimes this can mean a change of altitude of up to 4000 feet to get the greatest change of direction. It’s exciting to watch all the balloons hit point two and then scream for the sky.

After 8 days of flying twice a day, we were all pretty tired. But, we ate well and on our few off evenings, drank a lot of Austrian beer. The U.S. team members did well, coming in 2nd, 6th and 12th places. It’s a great start for next year, where we anticipate 100 competitors from 33 countries to descend on the little town of Hofkirchen to compete for the title of “Best in the World”.

by Pat Cannon