To be aloft in a hot air balloon is an uplifting experience. To float, glide, drift serenely and quietly above the crowd, looking down on people, places and things, is very relaxing and a distinct comfort to many.
As an RVer, I have helped crew for hot air balloons in Illinois, Georgia, Utah and at the really big hot air balloon event, the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. The Albuquerque event begins on the first full weekend of October each year and is scheduled for Oct. 3 to 11, 2015. Thousands of RVers join the great crowds of people who come from dozens of international locations especially for this balloon event each year.
Many RVers enjoy participating as members of a balloon chase crew. They may volunteer to help launch or retrieve the balloon, under the direction of the balloon pilot and crew chief. The duties of chase crew members, as I have learned them from several pilots and crew chiefs, are described here.
Duties of any hot air balloon chase crew vary according to the size and complexity of the balloon, the number, experience and strength of the volunteer crew coupled with the whims and knowledge of the balloon pilot. In all situations, the pilot and the crew chief are in charge and it is essential that the crew members respond to their commands. It is essential also for the safety of all those involved that each crew member respond in a positive manner when they are asked or instructed to do any particular task. Safety is imperative.
Balloons are often transported in vans, trailers, toy haulers or motorhomes. The envelope is packed in a carry bag with several handles. The fan which is used to inflate the balloon is attached to the floor of the van to prevent movement. Smaller items are placed in convenient holders.
The balloon basket or gondola has two or more propane tanks fastened to its interior. A framework designed to hold the propane burners in place under the throat of the balloon envelope fits within the basket. A canvas cover fits tightly over the basket and contents. Finally, the basket/gondola is fastened via straps in or to the transporting vehicle.
Inflating the balloon
Upon reaching the launch site, the pilot determines the direction of launch. The basket is removed from the vehicle and the burners are set in place.
In our crew, the pilot makes all of the attachments of the propane hoses to the burners to ascertain that the attachments are secure and safe. When secure, the basket is turned on its side and the bag with the envelope is placed approximately 20 feet from the burners. The throat of the envelope is carefully attached via cables or ropes to the basket support.
Some balloonists spread the envelope out across the launch site. Our pilot designates two crew members to hold the throat of the balloon envelope open and then starts the fan to blow cold air into the balloon. This is called “going cold.”
As the envelope expands, two or more crew carry the envelope bag away from the basket so that the balloon fills with cold air. Eventually or within minutes, depending on the size of the fan and the size of the balloon the envelope is full of cold air. This part of the inflation may require the pilot and others to go around and expand the balloon by pulling out folds and appendages of the balloon that must be filled with cold air.
As the envelope is gradually filled with cold air blown by the fan, the balloon must have sufficient space on the ground and all around to become inflated. However, the envelope will not rise off the ground until the air is heated.
When the order is given to “go hot,” the pilot will ignite the propane burners that are directed at the mouth or throat of the envelope. Slowly, as the cold air is heated and expands, the envelope will rise above the burners and the entire balloon and basket become upright. One or more crew member will hold the crown rope to prevent the envelope from moving laterally in the breeze.
If there is a high breeze, it may require two crown lines. Several crew place their weight on the basket/gondola to keep it in contact with the ground. A strong strap attached to the basket anchors the gondola to the chase vehicle. The crown line is attached to the basket frame network.
The pilot has been in the basket as the envelope is inflated and heated. One or more passengers now climb into the basket and is given a position and space to maintain during the flight. Further instructions are given by the crew chief regarding conduct during the flight and at the landing. Legal release forms for the event and insurance purposes have been signed as necessary by all participants. The event flight card is handed from the pilot to the launch director.
The flight director clears a path through the spectators and the pilot allows the balloon to rise from the ground and releases the holding strap. The balloon is now free and launched.
While in flight, the pilot and passengers must be alert to avoid obstacles on the ground or in the air. Once the balloon is higher than 100 feet above the ground, the primary concern is for other balloons in flight, especially at Albuquerque were hundreds of balloons are flying at the same time within limited space.
Depending upon the weather conditions the flight time may range from a few minutes to more than two hours.
To prepare for landing, the search begins for a clear, preferably smooth site free from obstructions with sufficient space to lay out the basket and envelope. In the case of a light wind, the balloon may descend softly into the chosen spot. This is preferable.
But, in the event of strong winds, the landing space must be longer and larger. It is preferable to have the chase crew at the landing site ready and waiting for the balloon to land.
Several years ago pilot Max Mitchell and I flew about for about 10 minutes and were forced by strong winds to land near the fiesta grounds in Albuquerque. The basket hit the ground, bounced several times and six men were required to hold the basket and stop the balloon. Two years later, the winds were so light and soft that he and I hovered high above Alameda Street in Albuquerque for an hour before we were able to drift southward into the only available landing site. Of course, the chase vehicle and the entire crew were in place and very bored while waiting for that landing.
When the basket touches ground, two or more people should hold on to the basket and stabilize it. People must not stand or walk in front of the basket. There is danger because the basket is heavy and can injure a crew member or a person standing in front of it. One or two crew pull on the crown line and attempt to lay the envelope on the smoothest surface, free from debris and obstructions including cacti, branches, wires, etc.
As the balloon deflates, one or two crew straddle the envelope and using strong arms they squeeze the air from the balloon through the open top. This is a tiring task requiring crew strong enough to hold and squeeze until the envelope is deflated.
Once the envelope is deflated, two members grasp the carry bag for the envelope and move it into place at the top of the balloon or the crown line end. The crown line and top of the balloon are placed into the envelope. At that point the crew members lift the envelope and place the envelope into the bag as it is being carried toward them by two or more others.
Finally, the remainder of the envelope is placed in the bag. The envelope bag is bounced on by crew members in an attempt to remove as much remaining air as possible. Meanwhile the burner on the gondola is dismantled and the burner and other components are stored in the basket. When both envelope bag and gondola are ready to place in the van the crew carries or places each in the proper location and the basket is strapped in place.
When the flight is done, the entire crew enters the balloon chase vehicle and all are returned to the launch field.
Finding a balloon crew to join is relatively easy since those types of flights are offered throughout the country. Just Google balloon flights in your area to find companies that offer the service. For information on volunteering to serve on a crew during the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, visit www.balloonfiesta.com/pilots-and-crew/crew-registration