Balloons, Borsch and Ballast

It’s a beautiful, sunny spring morning when Mia Fraser appears on my doorstep to get stuck into our interview – and she’s looking fresh, comfortable, and almost completely recovered from the awful bout of Lyme disease and rogue case of Salmonella that plagued her recent experiences over this year’s European ballooning season. Mia arrived home to Australia three days ago and, although she’s the first to admit she had an absolutely ripper adventure overall, she laughs when she remembers how rough it was at times.

Although there was plenty of other opportune crewing work and industry networking happening during the months Mia was in Europe this year, the aim of her game was to compete overseas for the very first time – having just scraped together the hours required at the Canowindra International Balloon Challenge in Central NSW back in April.

First up in August: Women’s Worlds – Nałęczów, Poland.

The opening ceremony was on the afternoon of the 6th of August and marching out first, alphabetically, was team Australia – Mia, alongside friend and dual world champion, Nicola Scaife (whose team this year included 7 yo son, Hugo, and baby Wren).

Mia: “She had a really good team, you know – she had Matt (Nicola’s husband), Tooly and Katie Pepper (experienced family friends and colleagues) – and having the kids there as well made it fun, it helped remove some of the seriousness from the competition. But I still don’t know how she did it – up all night feeding and taking wind readings, then flying during the day!”

The first official competition flight was on the morning of 7th August.

DAY 1

“So that flight, my first flight… ahh, it was a five task morning. And it was when I… umm… essentially forgot about my logger. And I didn’t press ‘Drop Marker’ on the GPS when I was close to targets, so I didn’t get scored on any of them.”

Out of the five tasks, four of them were target drops, so whether it was a Hesitation Waltz, a Fly On, or a Pilot Declared or Judge Declared, there was a target on the ground and the pilot had a marker for each task. Competition markers are little, material sandbag squares about the size of the palm of your hand, with a one meter long tail.

Mia says, “We got silk markers too, which were actually really hard to throw. They looked really pretty, but usually they’re the normal balloon fabric (which can feel slightly gritty); almost all of the tasks were gravity drops, so it didn’t make too much of a difference, but when you tried to throw them for a free marker drop, they were quite a bit different from what we were all used to.”

In a gravity drop, the pilot must maneuver the balloon as close as she can over the target (usually a big, canvas cross on the ground), then hold the unrolled marker by the tail over the edge of the basket – keeping hands and arms inside – then let it go, straight down.

The scoring areas in which the markers had to land to be scored were much smaller than Mia was used to as well – just 50m around the target, as opposed to Canowindra, where they could be up to 200m. And if you don’t get within the scoring area you don’t bother dropping your silk marker, because nobody will look for it and you will also have to pay the competition back. Your next best bet is getting as close as you can, then pressing ‘Drop Marker’ on your GPS logger, which will then record your 3D position at that time. “You’ll still never rank higher than someone who’s dropped their physical marker, even if you’re within the scoring area, but it will allow you to be scored against everyone else in the field and is considered a valid attempt.”

That’s what Mia forgot to do. Three times that morning.

“I also didn’t realise how close together all the tasks were – they were only a kilometer apart, and to do well in them you had to ascend and descend quickly between each one to really utilise steerage, which washed out a lot at the end of it all too… But, you know – you get a score if you press ‘Drop Marker’ – and I didn’t do that, so for most of them they gave me about the minimum score you can get; so, about 60 points for each task. Out of a possible 1000 points!” she laughs ruefully. “But, to put it into perspective, on the fourth task when I finally remembered to drop an electronic marker, I came 7th.”

Not bad, out of a field of 33!

Scoring in competition ballooning is really quite intriguing. The winner of each task receives 1000 points, regardless of how well they perform – if they are the closest to the target, or they do the best out of everyone in the competition for that task, they get the 1000 points. The rest of the scoring is relative to where you are positioned in the field after that… all the way back down to 60. You’re always competing, against everyone. At the end of the competition, the winner is the person with the most number of points in total – but, if you’re not having the best competition, a terrific individual result on a few tasks here and there can be a game-changing moral booster.

The second flight for that day delivered a slightly better pair of results – a 12th and a 17th. A middle-of-the-pack sort of flight.

With pilot briefing for the morning flights starting at 4:45am, getting a good rest in was high on the list of priorities.

DAY 2

Another significant variable in International Competition: selecting your take off location. The majority of the time in Australian competition, organisers tend to select a Common Launch Area (CLA) for everybody to set up and take off from – levelling the field on one common denominator at least. Over in Europe, Mia had to quickly get used to choosing her own take off area for almost every flight. It’s another easy way to mess up your morning.

The first task on the second day really depended on planning and, luckily, Mia’s crew – who are so important when it comes to taking command of such a large aircraft – helped her determine what needed to be done. “Eddie was really good at that, he worked that one out for me.”

photo by @ainraadik

“It was a normal target, but the scoring area was only open in fifteen minute increments. So for fifteen minutes you could only score with a GPS marker drop, and then for the next fifteen minutes you had to drop a sandbag marker instead. And there was no way of telling which fifteen minute window you were in, only by knowing that you took off at the right time, with the right angle, and by carefully calculating how long it was going to take you to get there with the wind that you had. I reckon I did the equation at least five times, flying towards that target, and I was checking it with the crew over the two-way to make sure I had it correct. There also wasn’t a lot of steerage that morning, so it was important to take off from the right place in order to get a good line.”

“So that was an interesting task. And that was also when I burnt the balloon – finishing that flight.”

Mia had landed the balloon standing, to make it easier for her crew to find her, then realised that she had accidentally burnt two of the bottom panels in her concentration. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, and by no means is it really dangerous, but it definitely feels awful when you’re borrowing someone else’s balloon. The mouth of the balloon is constructed of sturdy nylon panels, and the Kubicek balloon Mia was borrowing at the time (from Peter Kubicek himself, in fact) was built of polyester above that; it was two of those panels plus a nylon which had now disappeared. Contrary to popular perception, balloon fabric is extremely fire retardant and won’t catch on fire, but instead just tends to melt away if the heat source is directed at the fabric for a good amount of time. You can get away with flying a balloon with quite a lot of burn damage actually, depending on its position in relation to the balloon’s equator, and exact specifications are located in the Flight Manual – just in case you were interested! In this case, it cost about 650 Euro to fix, which is still a good deal cheaper than it would’ve been for Mia to ship one of her own balloons over from Australia. And, after all, there’s a saying in hot air ballooning – ‘There are two types of pilots: those who have burnt their balloons, and those who are yet to!’

Perhaps the sneakiest – and most consuming – factor affecting how you will fare in a competition like this though, is the state of fatigue that sets in. So many responsibilities! Taking command of a large aircraft twice a day, in whatever conditions are thrown at you, refueling, packing up, putting everything on charge when you get back to camp (tank warmers, GPS, radios etc), feeding yourself good nourishing food, and making sure you are getting sleep whenever you can. Over summer in Europe, the morning flights are early and the evening flights are late. Mia was snatching maybe three hours after lunch and four hours a night, in between flights. Maintaining good relationships within the team is paramount. You really start to notice it about halfway through the comp if you aren’t doing it right, that’s for sure.

Unfortunately, the Women’s World Hot Air Balloon Championships were rudely cut short this year by an unrelenting trail of bad weather, which was disappointing to say the least. Fortunately, Mia had another chance to compete at the Junior World Championships (Wloclawek, Poland) only a week or two later, this time borrowing Nicola Scaife’s beautiful Kavanagh balloon. The amount she learnt over the entire time was inconceivable, and she is incredibly and eternally grateful for the experience.

Many thanks to Peter Kubicek and Nicola Scaife for the use of their balloons, and also to Mia’s amazing crew – Lauren Cowie, Ed Saunders, Lauren Allen and Darti Brau Maugica – without whom none of this would’ve been possible.

All photos printed with permission from the wonderful Ain Raadik, balloon and adventure photographer extraordinaire. You can find more of his incredible work on Instagram, at @ainraadik. For enquiries, please email contact@ainraadik.com.au

First published in Issue 263 Airnews Magazine, Summer Edition 2018

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