HOW TO BECOME A BALLOON PILOT
Remember the kid at the airport who used to wash your plane for a ride, or pump gas for 3 weeks to earn one lesson? Many balloon ... more
Remember the kid at the airport who used to wash your plane for a ride, or pump gas for 3 weeks to earn one lesson? Many balloon students earn instruction the same way. Balloons need crew-not to fly, but to get airborne and to get back to the launch site. Since balloons drift with the wind, their pilots can't simply turn around and fly home when they're ready.
A two- or three-person crew helps the pilot rig the equipment, holds open the envelope while it fills with cold air, and applies weight to the outside of the basket as needed before launch. Then they follow the balloon on the ground, and after the landing help the pilot pack everything up and bring it home again. Much of the crew workload consists of carrying heavy equipment from the truck to and from launch and landing spots. It's hard work. Large, professional ride operations and flight schools pay their crew (sometimes).
Most sport balloon pilots don't pay crews in cash, but they do say thank you with rides or lessons. Of course, you could always pay for flight instruction, but crewing is also a great way to learn about the sport before your formal training begins.
Under FAR Part 61, United Stated, balloons do not have a CFI. Any commercial balloon pilot may instruct students, conduct biennial flight reviews in a balloon, and carry passengers for compensation or hire. Part of the commercial balloon PTS involves instruction. An NPRM currently in preparation would establish a CFI for balloons. Balloonists' opinions on this NPRM are sharply divided. Some feel such a rating would improve and standardize the quality of instruction. Others feel it would restrict instruction to urban areas where instructors could attract enough students to justify the cost of maintaining the CFI. It is unclear at this time what effect the NPRM would have on BFR's for balloonists.
Choosing a balloon instructor is just as critical as choosing an airplane flight instructor. You could go to one of the Part 141 schools. These schools maintain the same quality of instruction as airplane Part 141 schools. However, unless you live near one, you will not learn the intricacies of flying in your own unique part of the planet. Since micrometeorology and terrain are of critical importance to the balloonist, this could be a negative factor. On the other hand, you'll learn from professional instructors, whose teaching skills are sharp and current. Another option is to hire a local instructor. The local pilot's teaching skills may also be sharp and current if there is a lot of ballooning in your area.
The Balloon Federation of America (BFA), the largest organization of balloonists in the world, maintains a list of instructors who participate in its Master Instructor Program. The list appears in the BFA Member Roster, and is a good place to start. In fact, joining the BFA is a good first step anyway. You'll receive its news, educational, and reference publications, and be able to check your Roster for pilots and crew wherever you go.
The FAR's requires the balloon pilot to be 14 years of age to apply for a student license, 16 to take the exam for a private certificate, and 18 to get a commercial rating. There is no requirement for a medical certificate; however, you must sign a statement that you have no known medical defects which would make you unable to pilot a free balloon.
Your flight training will include at least six flights and ten hours for a private certificate, ten flights and 35 hours for a commercial. If you already have an airman's certificate in another category, the flights and time requirements are somewhat less, although you must still log balloon flight and instruction time. If you already have a fixed wing certificate, you don't have to take the written.
For a private hot air balloon rating, you must have two flights of at least 30 minutes' duration each, a solo flight and an ascent to at least 3,000 feet above the point of takeoff. Commercial applicants must have two flights of at least 1 hour's duration for a hot air balloon rating, two solo flights, and an ascent to at least 5,000 feet in a hot air balloon. In addition, you'll learn and be tested on standard and emergency flight procedures such as rigging, weigh-off, level flight, terminal velocity descent, the burner or pilot light going out, and high wind landings. The test procedure is just like that for airplanes-take the FAA written, schedule an oral exam and flight check, and get signed off by your instructor.
When you start your training, you'll use your instructor's balloon or buy your own. Balloons are rarely available for rent. Purchase prices range from $3,000 or less for a well-used system without equipment. Annual or 100-hour inspections ensure your balloon is legally and practically airworthy, just like any other aircraft. A new balloon envelope should last 300-500 hours before it needs a major overhaul or replacement. The airtight coating on envelope fabric wears out with prolonged exposure to high temperatures, so the cooler you can fly the balloon (the lighter the load, in other words) the longer it will remain airworthy. Baskets and burners last indefinitely if properly maintained.
In addition to the balloon, you'll need an inflator fan, a truck or trailer for storage and transportation, radios, and other related small tools. New fans cost $1,000 or more, although some mechanically adept balloonists build their own. Usually gasoline-powered, their engines run in the 5 h.p. to 12 h.p. range. The bigger your balloon, the more power it will take to blow it up. Chase vehicles, like fans, reflect the budget and taste of the pilot. Elaborate RV-type vehicles offer you an entertainment center for your passengers, storage for your equipment, television/vcr for watching videos of your flight on the way back to the launch site, and a price tag of over $40,000. Most balloonists use a pickup truck, van or car with.
Balloons don't usually fly in the vicinity of controlled airspace, so an aircraft radio is not required equipment for the balloon pilot. However, as airspace becomes more regulated and crowded every year, a hand-held like the ICOM A-21 is rapidly becoming standard aboard a balloon.
You'll also want to have radios with which to coordinate your ground crew. The pilot gives talks to the crew about direction of flight, roads, and intended landing sites. The crew notifies the pilot of any ground hazards, changing weather conditions on the surface, hidden livestock (which can be frightened by the noise of the burner) and owner permission to land. CB's work fine for this, but the frequencies are often crowded. Business band radios seem to be the choice for most pilots.
The cost of your training depends on the Part 141 school you attend or the instructor you choose, and whether you have your own equipment. Part 141 schools advertise rates as low as $1,400 with your own balloon to get a private certificate. Private instruction varies tremendously-rates can be $150 per hour to over $400. If you crew for lessons, your out-of-pocket costs will be much lower, but it will take a lot longer to log the necessary flight time and become.
While no single area of the country is "best" to fly balloons, each has its own challenges. For example, balloonists in the Great Plains states, where the wind blows unobstructed across the wide open landscape, are accustomed to fast landings and virtually unlimited fields in which to touch down. Pilots along the eastern seaboard enjoy calmer landings, but must maneuver into small fields surrounded by trees and hills. Coastal balloonists contend with sea-breeze and fog.
Mastering the skills needed to fly in a particular geographical terrain is the learning challenge for every aeronaut. Since balloons are so portable, and ballooning is such a social sport, pilots travel all over the country to participate in "meets" or rallies with other balloonists. Before launching in a new place, smart aeronauts talk to local pilots about local conditions. Aside from terrain, the other main concern for the balloonist is weather, specifically, wind. Ideal conditions for ballooning consist of high pressure, moderate temperatures, and wind speeds of less than 8 m.p.h. on the surface. While balloons can, and frequently do fly in stronger winds at launch and at higher altitudes during flight, hitting the ground in a wicker basket at much more than 8 m.p.h. can be an exciting experience. While we look for calm winds on the surface, winds aloft at 3,000, 6,000 and 9,000 feet a.g.l. should be moving at least fast enough to provide movement and some degree of steerage. At 3,000 feet, 10-20 m.p.h.is ideal, with 5 or 10 m.p.h. more with each 3,000 feet. Higher winds aloft might mean the risk of those speeds coming down to the surface soon after sunrise, or surface winds not dying off during an evening flight.
Sunrise and evening? But I want to go flying at noontime, so I won't have to get up so early. Sorry-midday is best left for glider pilots. Balloons usually fly within two or three hours of sunrise and sunset, when the winds are calmest and conditions most stable. During the middle of the day, upper level pressure gradient winds mix down to the surface. In addition, the development of thermals which the glider pilots love can be highly dangerous for the balloonist. Balloonists try to be on the ground no later than three hours after sunrise, and not launch more than that amount of time before sunset. Time of year makes much less difference than time of day. Some southwestern pilots pack their equipment away during the hottest summer months, because it's just too unpleasant to be outside, and hotter temperatures reduce gross lift. In New England, pilots do just the opposite, rarely dragging out the equipment during the harsh winters. But cold weather has a wonderful effect on balloons-fuel lasts longer and envelope temperatures stay lower. The pilot does have to pressurize fuel tanks with heat or nitrogen to ensure a strong flow of fuel to the burner.
One of the most dangerous weather conditions balloonists face is thunderstorms. During the pre-flight weather briefing, balloon pilots want radar summaries to show thunderstorms no closer than 100 miles from the flight area. In flight, the pilot constantly looks for changing conditions which could signal convective activity. At the first sign of building cumulus clouds, rapidly changing wind direction on the surface, or other such indicators, the balloon should get on the ground as quickly as possible. Balloonists develop the habit of being constantly on the watch for very slight indicators of air movement. Flags, leaves and smoke are clear wind gauges. (Another reason cold-weather flying is so enjoyable is all the smoke indicators from people's woodstoves). During very hot weather, pilots can judge surface wind direction by watching cows on the ground-they usually stand facing into any slight breeze. Dust devils mean thermals-stay on the ground.
Flight Service Stations provide good weather briefings for the most part, but rarely are close enough to the balloonist's launch area to be of much use at take-off time. Upon arrival at the launch site, most pilots send up a pilot balloon (pibal) to check wind speed and direction. The balloon must be laid out in a downwind direction for cold inflation, and gentle surface flow can be quite different from the prevailing direction given by Flight Service. Remember, we're talking about very light winds, and even a 10 degree shift in direction can mean the difference between a challenging inflation and a smooth one.
Landings present a completely different set of challenges to the balloon pilot than to the operator of a heavier-than-air craft. A "heavy" pilot can assume (or get via radio) permission to land at an airport. Balloons can't even get to the airport, and can't ever take for granted that a landowner will be present when it's time to end the flight. Balloonists try to get clearance to use someone's property for landing, either before the launch (by contacting all your local landowners' permission on approach. The on-approach request is a lot easier if the chase crew has kept up with the flight. They can seek out the landowner, and radio permission or lack of it to the pilot.
The crew can also let the pilot know of any potential problems concerning that site, such as lack of access to the field for the retrieve vehicle, hidden powerlines, crops, or skittish livestock. Every landing without permission is a trespass, and, if the landowner has specifically requested balloons not use his property, that land is off limits, or a "red zone." In some areas, community or farmer groups have already enacted legislation to prohibit ballooning. In England, many farmers even demand landing fees.
For these reasons, balloonists make landowner relations a critical part of their flight training and operations. Here are some of the challenges you might encounter, and how to meet them.
Crops: Learn to identify what grows in your area, and what its growth cycles are. Then avoid those fields during times when you might do damage. For example, it's a bad idea to land in a field of tall, beautiful hay. But many farmers don't mind if you use that same field right after the hay has been
Unknowledgeable neighbors: Many people, when they first see a balloon land, (off an airport, with a lot of fire) assume that it's a crash, or, at the very least, that the pilot is in trouble.
Talk to them, quickly, before they call the rescue squad. Make sure your crew knows how to talk to spectators-about how balloons work, about the importance of not driving onto someone else's land to see the balloon, and about respecting neighbors' property. Also, it's a good idea to talk to the law enforcement and emergency professionals in your area on a regular basis, making sure they know what you're up to and what to do should there be a real emergency.
Tailgate flying at rallies is as much of the experience as the flight itself. Post-flight parties are spirited exchanges, which usually end within a couple hours so the pilots and crew can get enough sleep to prepare for the next flight. Even if you're the only balloon in the sky, you're sharing the experience with your passengers, your crew, and the spectators enroute and at the landing. Balloonists traditionally end the flight with a toast of champagne, a practice dating back to the 1700's. Even in today's alcohol-conscious society, ballooning is thirsty work, and the celebrations take place with at least non-alcoholic beverages, although real champagne is still one of the expenses we all figure
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