A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A COMPETITION BALLOONIST

Hot air ballooning competitions exist – and if you’ve got questions, that’s understandable.
Traditionally, they involve a week of flying, morning and afternoon, with teams consisting of pilot, navigator (sometimes) and ground crew, completing tasks and practising supreme accuracy in smaller, especially manufactured ‘racer’ balloons designed for deft manoeuvrability.

It’s as intriguing as it sounds, and it’s an aspect of ballooning that the Saunders family has always taken a great interest in, starting a long time ago with Kiff Saunders, GBA founder and CEO, and continued by his three children and their friends.

Affectionately (and somewhat jokingly) known as The Flying Lemmings, these intrepid young balloonists were participating in ballooning competitions before some of them were old enough to hold a driver’s licence. The Saunders siblings have since competed all over the world, in everything from local competitions to world championships, honing their ballooning skills for ultimate safety and security in commercial skies, and having an absolute ball along the way.

This year, they made a triumphant return to the Australian competition circuit at the National Championships held in Northam, WA. The following, written by GBA crew and Lemming Bronni Bowen, is an account of this race, and the tale of how she ended up here, too.

We flew into Perth International on Thursday, the 4th of May, at various hours and from various locations – most of us around midnight. Picking up hire cars, the hour-long drive out to Northam under a giant moon set an exciting scene. It felt great to be back at a comp. More than that, it was great to be back in Northam, a particularly cathartic experience for me, as it was here that I experienced my first real introduction to Australian ballooning culture.

Checking the pibal… (L-R) Bronni Bowen, Ed Saunders, Georgia Croft, Pato Saunders circa 2017

That was in 2017. I’d flown in from Melbourne and caught the train to Northam, where Georgia Croft and Eddie Saunders met me at the station after a morning practice flight. It was the first time I’d met Eddie, and I’d only known Georgia a couple of months. Pato Saunders had recruited a stellar team for his first Australian Nationals. I got a crash course on competition ballooning over lunch and was assigned the role of driver – which I was pleased about as it felt like my only forte at the time.

It was one of the best weeks of my life to that date. I inhaled experience from Deano Pegg, who took me under his wing and taught me how to be the best ground crew I could be. He even loaned me his special Suunto compass with the giraffe sticker on it – the spare one he always seems to have on hand for irresponsible Lemmings. I met Nicola Scaife, who approached me over the fire following one of the first morning flights – I was shy, as I knew who she was, and blown away by the way she immediately made me feel so close. I observed Ruth Wilson, another ballooning great, signing copies of her new book about the history of the Northam Aero Club, and I had a secret warm feeling that I had found my people.

On the last night, after Pato had taken out Rookie of the Year, we sat around the fire out on the property we’d spent the last week eating, sleeping and ballooning. Jimmy West, our enthusiastic local volunteer crew – a kiwi – emerged from the darkness with his sons to perform a special Haka, bringing us humbly to tears. Afterwards, I received my initiation into the Flying Lemmings, which consisted of Pato solemnly reciting The Balloonist’s Prayer whilst smearing some red wine across my forehead and forcing me to eat a very burnt rissole from the now-cold barbeque. This irresistibly charismatic group of young Victorian balloonists brought me into their fold, fusing me to the end of a handling line. I was hooked.

Pato Saunders, Rookie of the Year – 2017 Australian National Championships, with Eddie Saunders (L) and Georgia Croft (R)

2023 Northam Nationals – An Earnest Endeavour

Kiff Saunders, patriarch of the Saunders troupe, had been and gone already, satisfying his only penchant – for a rough, adventurous road trip like the old days, with his mate, Tim Johnson. They’d taken a week to cross the Simpson Desert in Eddie’s Hilux ute, pulling the brand new Zonzo racer and other bits that didn’t make it into the container for shipping, stopping along the way to put a balloon up for a jolly or two over Australia’s southern coast. Once they’d dropped the gear in Northam, they were straight back on a plane to Melbourne, Kiff’s haste no doubt linked to the prospect of having the house to himself for ten days whilst the next generation busied themselves with frivolous flying at the other end of the country.

The Lemmings et al. began trickling into Northam in his wake. Pato Saunders led the charge, flying the Kavanagh 90 Racer, Love Letter, his team consisting of Lili Touyeras, his girlfriend, and Jimmy West, back again after all these years (indeed, I don’t know that we could’ve discouraged him if we’d tried). Bevan Fistr, Global Ballooning’s newest pilot-in-training, joined Pato in the basket with a mere two hours of burner time. Sometimes there’s no better way to learn than in a baptism of LPG.

There was no missing Eddie Saunders in his shiny new Zonzo-sponsored Limoncello racer, accompanied by his faithful friend and navigator, Jacob Brown. They’re a formidable pair whose strengths balance each other perfectly – Eddie’s natural gift for flying and emotional intensity matched with Jacob’s unshakable stability and indisputable knowledge of systems and the competition handbook. Mac Johnson and I were their crew, though as it turned out, the conditions of the week and the tasks set left little for us to do except to follow as closely as possible and perhaps get a pibal up for landing. With so many high and fast pilot-declared goals, having two in the basket was a distinct advantage.

Scarlett Saunders’ Nationals debut is a quietly dignified affair. She’s kept it simple, flying Pato’s little blue Zonzo racer, a 60, with Georgia Croft as her knowledgeable and experienced crew. A valued volunteer local, Peter, generously provides his ute for the week and drives so GC can have her hands free. 

The Saunders line-up. Scarlett in the foreground (Blue Zonzo), Pato in the middle (Love Letter) and Eddie behind (Limoncello). What a way to start comp! 2023 Australian National Championships

As the first task morning dawns, gusting and tempestuous, Scarlett and Pato request to move their balloons after the green flag is raised. Permission was granted by the Director, and the Saunders rite-of-passage of a directed contest (albeit subtle) was learned later that day, but only after Scarlett achieved one of the field’s smoothest inflations, as relative carnage unleashed all around. The three siblings depart confidently and complete their tasks for a solid start to the competition.

Eddie’s goals for this Nationals are simple – Mac, Jacob, himself and I to work as a team with the dedicated intention to win, to treat every flight as flyable until it is cancelled, and most importantly, to have a good time. Jacob’s rules are a little more specific: no energy drinks for Eddie following an AM flight (“Is he drinking a V right now? Has he actually got a V? Please take it off him – we spoke about this!”), Mac and I to perform all crew duties independently, and the pilots to go straight home for day naps as a priority. An extra car was hired so they could implement this seamlessly, and the structure is priceless for Eddie.

We’re back for the first afternoon flight, and it’s out to a common launch site so the directors can assess the conditions. 

Lili’s speciality is operating the Windreader. Pato says he’s never met anyone who can ‘lock on’ to a pibal like she can, but it makes sense when you consider her background and part-time career as a corporal in the French army. This is not her first time behind a scope! As we roll into the centre of the launch site and poise for direction, our wind data is posted to the group chat.

The Lemmings relax and frolic around on the grass, awaiting the Director’s signal. Will we fly? We chat amongst ourselves, laughing and joking – but ready to leap into action as required. Moments like this, my heart swells for this group. They are lighthearted yet serious. Playful, yet some of the world’s most experienced pilots and crew their age. I’m proud of the standards we’ve been taught to hold ourselves to by Kiff and all the other wonderful mentors who’ve guided us along the way.

The Flying Lemmings, 2023 Top (L-R) – Mac Johnson, Liam McGirr
Middle – Bevan Fistr, Pato Saunders, Harry Fraser, Jeremy Fiske, Darty Brau, Georgia Croft, Bronni Bowen, Mia Fraser, Ed Saunders, Jimmy West
Bottom – Scarlett Saunders, Jacob Brown, Lili Touyeras

The first afternoon flight is cancelled. We’re far from the Yarra Valley, and the wind is swift here, moving unchecked across the rolling Western Australian Wheatbelt. We assume this will be a theme as the week unfolds, but we are excited. It presents a challenge and an opportunity to test ourselves properly.

The Frasers have joined us from Victoria, too. Harry and Mia are competing in their brand new racer, which carries the registration of their father Mark’s first-ever balloon. They’ve flown in the honourable Kiwi-Lemming, Liam McGirr, who is crewing for them alongside Jeremy Fiske. Harry’s start to the week is strong, and it looks like he’ll be a real contender, not only as a Rookie but also for a top spot.

The second morning is cancelled, again due to weather, but we get the afternoon in. There’s still a lot of speculation at the field, waiting for the northwesterly to die down even just slightly, but eventually, a Windward commercial balloon moves into position and begins inflating for a Hare and Hound task. The excitement really mounts now, and it’s a spectacularly windy set-up. 

Scarlett, Eddie and Pato are lined up across the back of the field, having positioned themselves immediately behind the hare. They stagger the balloons up and buck around in their baskets, swiftly completing final checks. Eddie is about to release when Scarlett moves across before him in a running start – then Pato. Eddie, flying solo for this task, curses them both and is forced to bang about for an extra minute before releasing. He doesn’t take out the 1000 points, but he’s close, and things are looking good for Master Edward – as long as he can carry good average consistency and avoid his nemesis of a catastrophic drop-out flight mid-competition (and the emotional roller-coaster that is inclined to follow).

So many different directions! Another windy WA inflation. Northam 2023

Wednesday proves to be a complete cancel – another break to recoup. Time for a trip to the op-shop for fabulous outfits and a visit to the Northam races, where we were pressed with a hero’s welcome and member prices at the bar by the very amiable race club president, BJ. But the rest of the week looks good for flights, so the Lemmings behave themselves and stoically prepare for an assault on the last couple of days.

Thursday and Friday pass in a flurry of flights and tasks, punctuated by a boisterous birthday celebration on the field Thursday afternoon. Mac is surrounded by Lemmings and their friends, all singing happy birthday and pounding the vehicles with their fists to keep time. We all pat Mac on the back, grab a piece of cake, scoff it down, and the welcome green flag goes up. We’re off and racing!

By Friday afternoon, hopes are high and tensions are mounting, but Eddie and Jacob are keeping cool. Their plan is coming together. There’s been no punching burner poles, no tantrums, no striving for perfection – just monitoring the field and consistently averaging well. They’ve been working on this since Worlds last year in Slovenia, and it’s paying off. They are here to win.

As the sun drops on the horizon, Mac and I retrieve them from the train track embankment northeast of town. They’re calm and collected. On the way back to the aero club, Jacob mentally calculates outcomes while Eddie is on the phone with the other top contenders dissecting the final flight. By the time we get to refuelling, it’s all but confirmed. Pato walks over to Eddie and wraps him in a huge embrace. Everyone is congratulating us, and I unceremoniously burst into tears (that’s always a given).

Despite the windy conditions, there’s not a burn mark on any of the balloons, no broken or bent equipment, and, dare I say it, all egos remain intact. The Lemmings are in the top seven of a field of 20 – Harry with 8211 points, Scarlett with 8323, and Pato in fourth with 10616. Eddie pipped the comp with 11906, beating Matt Scaife, in second place, by a margin of just 351 points. To top it all off, Scarlett has taken out Rookie of the Year, just as Pato did six years earlier. It’s a glorious way to wrap up a huge week, which, despite a couple of false starts, allowed us to finish with a real bang.

Jacob Brown and Eddie Saunders prepare for take-off. 2023 National Australian Champions

The best part? In just a few short months, we’ll be back to do it all again in September for the 2023 Women’s World Championships, as Lady Lemmings Scarlett Saunders and Georgia Croft represent Australia alongside our wonderful compatriots Nicola Scaife, Alana Kahl and Josie White. Wish us big luck, and see you there!

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