The day starts at 4:30 am as we curse the alarm clock for waking us again.
Once we are awake and have managed to ascertain some coffee, we take all our radios, flying computers, GPS’, and other instruments off charge and pile them, and ourselves into the car.
It takes us about half an hour to reach the competition centre, while outside we start to assess the weather and wind conditions to predict what our flight may look like this morning.
At 6:00am we have our briefing, 22 ballooning teams pile into a small room and we are given a task sheet and a weather briefing that outlines what we will need to achieve in the flight. A typical morning’s task sheet will involve three or four goals or targets that you need to fly to. Competition ballooning is about navigation and precision. You use different wind currents to navigate where you want to go. Often we will fly towards a big cross in a paddock and try to throw a little sandbag marker as close as possible to the middle. The briefing goes for about 20 minutes and is given in French and English.
When the briefing concludes, the chaos begins.
We are required to find our own launch site. So the 22 ballooning teams will race out of our little briefing room and run to their cars in order to get out of the briefing first. Finding a launch site is often the most stressful part of the morning, as if you choose wrong, you may miss all the tasks that are set for the morning. We have found it is important to practice evasive driving techniques as some ballooning teams can get a little aggressive in their search for the ideal launch site!
When we believe we are in the right place, we set up our balloon. In the stressful competition environment, we often need to rush. From arriving to take off, it can take as little as 10 minutes to complete. Much different from the steady and relaxed pace needed to go for a commercial balloon flight.
From the moment we take off, we are tracked by a small GPS attached to our balloon. This is provided by the competition and is used to determine how accurate we are, and to make sure we do not break any rules. As soon as I take to the air in my balloon, my ever-faithful retrieval crew needs to pack up the vehicle and drive as quickly as possible to the first target. As the biggest advantage I can gain, while flying, is to have information on the ground at the target.
At this competition, my Crew Chief was my brother, Edward. He is also an up and coming competition balloon pilot and will be competing later in Europe. Given my brother and my French amounts to a little ‘bonjour’ here and a ‘croissant’ there, it was crucial that we also had Philippine. She is a lovely French girl who’s bilingual language skills proved invaluable as we hurtled around the French countryside.
A general flight will last for around 1 – 1.5 hours. In this time we will fly towards all the tasks set. It was quite an experienced group of pilots and so most pilots were getting at least 5 or 10 meters from the target. The best are often within one or two meters. When flying from 5 – 7 kilometres away, I find this quite impressive that we can be so accurate using just the wind.
When we complete the tasks, the next race is to land as soon as possible. As it is important to return to the competition centre promptly to hand in your report and refuel the balloon before getting stuck in a queue of teams. By this stage it is 10:30 am and the temperature is already above 30 degrees. When we are done, we drive home, we prepare the balloon for the next flight, and then try and sleep. As the whole process will begin again at 6:00 pm this evening, for an afternoon flight.
by Paterson Saunders