How Does One `Race' a Hot-Air Balloon?

BALLOON competitions are not races, but tests to see which pilot can drop a lightly weighted marker closest to a designated target. There's usually plenty of time allowed, so the trick isn't to get there first, but to get closest, thus increasing the chance of putting your marker near the center.

To do this, the pilot must be able to judge the winds correctly and to find the ones that help him travel in the right direction. The balloon is equipped with a liquid propane gas burner, and by regulating the amount of heat, the pilot can make it go up or down at will.

``Altitude control can be very precise - within inches,'' notes world champion Al Nels. ``But horizontally you can only go with the wind. So it is a navigational test, testing your ability to steer the balloon by using the winds at different altitudes.''

It is also a test of patience, according to international official Tom Sheppard.

``You may have to `sit and wait' in the air, not rush into going for a target,'' he says. ``Or you may have to go around again. Top competitors impress people by passing near the target and not making a drop because they know they can come around again and get even closer.''

Typically, the target is the center of a large X, either one marked out on the ground or the intersection of two streets.

Sometimes the target is fixed, and pilots can choose takeoff points anywhere more than five miles away; sometimes pilots choose their own targets and must take off from a set spot; and sometimes both points are designated by race officials. In all cases, though, the task is the same: to drop the marker as close to the center as possible.

The marker resembles a small bean bag and weighs 4 or 5 ounces. Attached to it is an 8-foot streamer, 4 inches wide, which serves both to slow it down as it descends and to make it visible to people on the ground.

Pilots sometimes go up 10,000 feet or higher seeking the right winds, but by the time they are over the target, they want to be as close to the ground as possible.

``The higher up you are, the less chance of getting the marker near the center of the target,'' Nels pointed out. ``Ideally, you'd like to pass over it about five feet off the ground. I've dropped it from as high as 12,000 feet when things didn't work out, but I'd say my norm is around 40 or 50 feet - and most top fliers are down in the 100-feet-or-less range.

``Considering that you can't steer, the level of skill is really astounding. I've seen competitions where the top five finishers all came within a foot of the center.''

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