Competitive Flying

Hot air ballooning is popular with general public for its scenic views and typically calm rides, however, most people do not know that competitive hot air ballooning is quite demanding and complex. Even though it is not physically strenuous, professional ballooning demands a lot of knowledge, training, hard work and a set of sophisticated skills. Competitions take place at national, regional, international and world levels; World Championships are being held every two years. Competitions are conducted using standard Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) rules that outline the tasks for pilots that can be used during a competition and define the parameters that determine the winner – champion pilot.

Tekmovalno balonarstvo

Ballooning competitions take several days. Commonly two flights are designated for one day and each flight consists of series of tasks selected by the Director before take off, after assessing the weather conditions and other relevant factors. Therefore, competition flights are not aimed at achieving fastest time, maximum distance or altitude, as in other sports. They require pilots to apply their skills of manoeuvring their balloons over a set course. They include goals, targets, scoring areas, time and distance limits, which a pilot has to take into consideration to prove his flight planning, anticipation and managing balloon skills in the given weather conditions.

Good results in competition tasks are achieved by using a combination of good flight planning – choosing the appropriate take-off site, appreciation of winds at various altitudes, tactics to choose and determine the goal, good balloon managing and a bit of luck. By lifting and descending the balloon, the pilot tries to catch the right wind current that can take him to his goal or target. Balloons do not land on the target itself, but it is up to the pilot to drop markers (small sandbags with streamers attached) as close to the target as possible. The result is the distance between the marker and the centre of the target. The pilot whose marker lands closest to the target is awarded the highest score.

Important Factors in HAB Competitions

Catching the wind
There is no direct mechanical means of controlling lateral movement for a hot air balloon, but a change in direction can be achieved by utilizing the wind currents at hand. Sometimes, at different altitudes, the wind will vary in general directions. By climbing or descending into these layers of air, the pilot is able to manoeuvre the balloon onto a preferred line of travel. Pilots must accurately gauge the speed, direction, and strength of the winds before the flight, and be able to predict changes during the flight.

Orientation in space
Spatial awareness and perception are the key to success once you are airborne. The pilots must have a good understanding of the competition area based on the rules of the competition: they have to be aware of their position in the air at every single moment, the position of their target in the area; where other balloons are and where they are heading; and what areas they should avoid regarding the flight regulations or competition rules. The basis for orientation is a topographic map that the pilot has traditionally in a hard copy, but most pilots also make use of navigation software, satellite navigation (GPS) and tablets.

There is only one person in command of the hot air balloons, but teamwork is an indispensable part of the competition. The ground crew helps pilot prepare for the flight and after the flight is completed. They help with instruments and equipment needed for the flight. They follow the balloon giving the pilot accurate information about weather conditions, which could be crucial for his success. The communication runs via radio or mobile phone. Quite often at international competitions the competitors from the same country help each other exchange information during the flight, prepare the tactics and flights together and thus try to gain some advantage over the other competitors.

Self-Control and Physical Ability
The only way to control a hot air balloon is by operating the burner and vent. Operating the burner seems very easy, but it requires concentration and precision so any nervousness or emotional tension resulting in over-control have an immediate effect on the flight. Pilots must control their emotions so they can demonstrate their abilities with an even temperament at all times. The preparation and accumulated flying experience are therefore of crucial importance for the pilots.

Scoring Points
The winner of each task will get 1,000 points, the others get less, calculated proportionally according to their achievement in the task. The winner is the pilot who gathers the most points during the competition. It is important that pilots do not fail by trying to score too many points in one particular task instead of achieving a good overall average, and that requires good tactics, adapting and anticipation skills.

Results of competitors are calculated according to the task rules. It can be the distance between their markers and goals, targets in the air or on the ground – measured by meters or calculated in space (3D), greatest area, greatest distance within a set airspace, or angle. The task winner gets 1,000 points. Only the scores of the top 50% of pilots in the competition are calculated by comparing their results to those of the winning pilot. This means the following: if a competitor’s result is close to the first placed pilot, he will be awarded points close to 1,000 points. The mid-fleet pilot will score about 500 points and pilots in the lower 50% of competitors will be scored by evenly dividing the remaining 500 points by their ranking order. The scoring system advantages pilots in the top half of the fleet.

Competition ABC

Competitor should have a valid balloon pilot licence, medical certificate and at least 50 hours as pilot-in-command. He represents his club at the national championships and his country at the international events.

Director of the Competition is the soul of the competition. He sets competition tasks and he adjusts them regarding the given weather conditions and terrain itself.

Target is a prominent cross displayed in the vicinity of a goal or at a specified coordinate set by the Director of the competition. Size of a target leg is 10 x 1 m; it is made in buoyant coloured material, so that it can be easily seen from afar. The Measuring Team is always positioned close to the target.

Goal could be a physical object distinctly seen on the map or in nature; it is usually a road junction, or it could be set only by given coordinates and altitude.

Logger is a device that logs GPS track of the competitor and is used to enter electronic marks and declare goals during the flight. It is used as an observation tool to monitor compliance with the rules, regarding flying in the prohibited zones, altitude control and compliance with the rules defining distances in competition tasks.

Marker is a colourful weighted streamer a competitor throws towards the target or a goal on the ground. Two throwing methods are allowed – free drop and gravity drop. The first is the one when the competitor throws the marker by hand towards the target, for the second one, the pilot just lets it drop over the basket edge.

Event rules, for the competitors are prepared by FAI – World Air Sports Federation, i.e. FAI Ballooning Commission (CIA) and they apply to all international competitions. They set the general and task rules for competitors, responsibilities and duties of the Competition Director, international jury, measuring officials, scorers and competitors.

Competition briefing is a meeting held ahead of the flight, where Competition Director presents all competition tasks to be performed during the flight. The meteorologist on duty gives the weather condition details and he forecasts the weather for the coming competition flights.

Competition Director sets tasks for each competition flight. It is rarely just one single task, he would usually present multiple tasks. The winner of each task scores 1,000 points for his result, other competitors get less, and their scores are calculated comparably depending on their result and the result of the task winner.

The winner of the competition is the balloon pilot who scored most points throughout the competition.

Competition Tasks

Tekmovalna naloga PDG

Every pilot selects his goal before the take-off by himself. Possible goal could be a point in nature, usually a crossroad; coordinates and altitude could define it as well. Besides his flying skills, the pilot has to show his abilities to plan the flight well according to the wind direction and speed data.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the goal. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the goal.

Tekmovalna naloga JDG

The Competition Director selects the goal as a point in nature or sets a target. The balloons take-off from the common launch area and choose the tactics that will take them as close as possible to the target giving the weather conditions.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the target. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the target.

Tekmovalna naloga HWZ

Balloons fly to one of the goals selected by the Competition Director; pilot’s task is to select the goal he would most probably reach or hit with regard to the weather conditions and tasks that follow.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the target. The winner is the one that drops the marker, or marks it closest to the target.

Tekmovalna naloga FIN

Task rules define that pilots can choose their individual launch point with regard to the weather conditions and fly towards the target set by the Competition Director. The Director also sets the minimum distance from the take-off point and the target.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the target. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the target.

Tekmovalna naloga FON

Task goal for pilot is to get as close as possible to the goal he has selected during the flight. According to the pilot’s goal, the Competition Director limits the minimum distance from the decision point to the selected goal. The pilot usually selects his goal during the previous task flight.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the goal. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the goal.

Tekmovalna naloga HNH

A no-competitor balloon represents a Hare and all the competitors are Hounds. Usually a Hare is airborne several minutes before the competitors. The Competition Director limits the hare flying time. The Hare’s landing site becomes the target that the competitors need to hit by marker drop.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the target. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the target.

Tekmovalna naloga WDN

The task is a combination of judge declared goal and Hare and Hounds task. The pilots can select their individual launch point. The Director will define the minimum distance between the launch point of the competitor and of the Hare, which usually represents the first goal for the competitors. The landing site of the Hare becomes the target, that represents the second goal and the competitors have to hit it by marker drop.

The result of the task is the distance between the marker and the target. The winner is the one that drops the marker or marks it closest to the target.

Tekmovalna naloga GBM

The Director defines scoring area in nature where the competitor can drop or mark the marker. The target is also marked and it can be within or out of the particular scoring area; the task for the competitor is to drop his marker onto the scoring area as close to the target as possible.

Usually the scoring areas are of irregular shape, their boundaries are easy to spot (trench, wood, field) or are marked with straps for the purpose

Tekmovalna naloga CRT

The Director defines several scoring areas and time limits when they are valid within which the competitor should drop or mark the marker. A target will be set in one of the scoring areas. Generally, the valid scoring period for individual areas changes. Task complexity increases if the distance between the scoring areas and the target varies.

The best competitor will calculate his rate of approach correctly and thus be able to make a drop as close as possible to the target inside the scoring area that is time valid at that moment.

Tekmovalna naloga ELB

The rules require the pilot to achieve the greatest possible change of direction in flight. The basic direction is marked with A and B flight positions, the change of the direction from the initial one with point C.

The task result is the change of direction, which is 180 degrees minus the angle ABC. The competitor who achieves the greatest change of direction wins the task

Tekmovalna naloga LRL

The competitor tries to cover as large an area as possible. The Director defines the first point of the area as A; the competitor marks points B and C (electronic mark or marker drop) during the flight in such a manner to achieve the biggest ABC triangle area. Usually the Director sets minimum flight time or distance that is required before the marker can be dropped or the points B and C can be marked.

The competitor creating the triangle with the largest area wins.

Tekmovalna naloga ANG

Similarly to the elbow task, the competitor has to try achieve the biggest possible deviation of direction from the initial one given by the Director (example could be the meridian on the map); competitor marks the change of direction with two points: A (the point of crossing the initial direction) and B when he surpasses the minimum distance from point A.

The result is the angle between the initial direction and ‘’A-B’’ line. The greatest angle is the best result.

Tekmovalna naloga MNDD

The Competition Director selects two or more scoring areas; a competitor drops two markers onto them so that the distance between them is the shortest possible.

Area borders are usually easy to see in nature or are marked by straps.

Tekmovalna naloga MXDD
MAXIMUM DISANCE DOUBLE DROP (XDD) Similarly to the shortest line task, the Director selects two or more scoring areas; a competitor drops markers in such a way to achieve the longest distance between the two markers.
Tekmovalna naloga 3DT

The Director describes scoring air space (usually it is a geometric shape, defined by coordinates and selected altitude) and the competitor tries to make the greatest distance within airspace.

The result is the accumulated horizontal distance between valid track points in the set airspace(s). Greatest result is best.