Ballistic Ballooning

Deano, our mentor for the week, takes a look at one of the ropes I’ve used to tie down the envelope. “You’re a knitter, not a knotter!” he exclaims. I wink at him, and reply with one of my favourite sayings, “If you can’t tie knots, tie lots!”

He’s right though, none of my efforts bear any resemblance whatsoever to a knot previously tied by myself, or anyone else in the history of hitches.

Hot air balloon events are sprinkled with golden slabs of humour and, at the end of the week, that’s what far outweighs the stresses that come with the added component of competition – inevitable when you care about what you’re doing. The key is to take your time. Slight disasters, flights, entire mornings, friendships: all can be saved by the collection of thoughts. Take your time.

You’re following Team Georgia Croft from the vantage of her ground crew (#teamcrofty), through the two Australian events of 2019 – the Canowindra International Balloon Challenge (April), and the Australian National Balloon Championships (May) – held in Mudgee, NSW, this year. Private balloon pilot and first-time competitor in a national space, Georgia is in the running for both Australian Champion and Rookie of the Year, with the added possibility of qualifying for a spot in the 2020 Women’s Worlds. She’s currently racking up experience to fly commercially and, in the meantime, the competition arena is a great environment to learn invaluable skills for the real world. Here’s a brief description of Competition Ballooning from the Nationals guidebook:

Ballooning competitions are not a race; rather, the competition flights (tasks) require pilots to manoeuver their balloons over a set course with goals, targets, scoring areas, time, and distance limits. Good results in competition tasks are achieved using the variation of winds at different altitudes to fly in the direction of a goal and accurately approach the target. Balloons do not land on the target. The pilot drops a marker onto or as close to the target as they can fly. The markers are small sandbags with streamers attached.

Results are calculated by the distance between the competitor’s marker and the targets. The pilot who drops his market closest to the target scores 1000 points. The next half of the pilots score between 500-1000 points. The lower half score less than 500 points for the task. The pilot with the highest aggregate score wins.

This sounds damp. Comp flying is fun, and that’s rule number one. Rule number two?- Always remember rule number one.

An admittedly fresh, young pilot, Georgia’s priorities for the week are simple: look after you, look after your team, learn as much as you possibly can.

COMP PREP

Georgia books accommodation at a location just outside of town, away from the hustle and bustle of the Showgrounds. We are privy to a delightful spot which allows us delicate reprieve, and also a wonderful chance to blast eight minutes of warm-up playlist on the drive in to pilot briefings. We start each day at 4 am religiously, as a team, with a piece of multigrain toast smothered in either peanut butter and banana, or avo and Vegemite. Perhaps even a cheeky multivitamin tablet. It isn’t a question – nourishment is a strong rule. In comp week, you’ll very quickly work out if you aren’t doing it right. Not many people feel like eating at this time of the day – until they experience the pangs associated two hours later at Task Four. Eat food – and bring snacks. Lauren and I are already nailing it, packing spare bananas for the whole team.

Pilot Briefing is a solemn affair – the pilots and their Chief Crew take their place at designated tables. The rest seat themselves on the sidelines. There is a roll call, during which I send Lauren a photo of the task sheet which has appeared on our desk.

Lauren replies to the group chat with, “<3 thanks team!”. Group chats are a strong strategy.

From here it’s quick work. Georgia plots target details and forecast winds into her Surface Pro, and I plot task locations and details for the ground crew on ours. Georgia starts flight planning, while I (Bronni) take note of any reminders and notifications that could be helpful to Georgia during the flight. Whilst all this is happening, Lauren makes sure she is ready to direct the driver (also me) to the launch site – which is either a common launch point or Pilot declared – depending on the first task.

We pour out of briefing into the still cool, dawn light. Our breaths are misty. It’s go time.

There’s time pressure – but we’re organised. We introduce you to the rest of our group, the Flying Lemmings, who are gathered in clumps around our vehicles under the blazing showground lights. We’re a young team of five pilots and their crew from the Yarra Valley, Victoria. There’s a strong camaraderie, but also an understanding that, once this quick discussion is done, we’ll be responsible for our own decisions as far as the morning goes. We quickly talk tasks, double check that everyone is on board, then pile into the cars for roll out.

photo by @ainraadik

It’s a solid first flight. We perform well as a team and work out our parameters – all teams need to suss out their touch and goes. It’s a great test of character. Three girls decide – we’re good at this.

HOW IT IS

There are rumours running hot outside the briefing room the next morning of a Wedding Cake task – and not the kind some girls hope for before their 30th birthday. All tasks for the day are prepared for the disposition of the winds, however, some are easier than others. The game masters love to throw in the ultimate test. 

Picture the 3D shape of a wedding cake. Now picture it splayed above a map of regional New South Wales and you have the scoring area – perhaps it is 2000-4000 ft tall. The pilot must manoeuvre within that space as much as possible in order to accrue the most distance inside it – usually within a given amount of time. Good luck – just as I wish those ladies who hope for that same shape prior to their 30ths.  

MORNING OF

The field is chosen. We’ve judged the winds, spoken to landowners, and we’re pulling the balloon out of its envelope onto the ploughed, dusty ground. It’s heavy, but we’ve done the practice flights and we’re starting to feel ‘comp fit’. Your core gets stronger, things start to feel lighter, and you begin to get tough with things like loading the heavy, bulky fan back onto the trailer and strapping it down, loosening hard, three-part knots in rope, and the cold metal of the burner set up and it’s fiddley carabiners. You start to feel more than competent. It’s an empowering feeling!

The green flag is raised, and the raspy sounds of twenty inflation fans burst out stark against the crispness of a rural sunrise. There is nothing like being in a paddock at first light to make you feel at one with the land. The spectacle of two dozen balloons inflating within twenty feet of you is overwhelming – so loud you can’t hear yourself think – and, all at once, you are enveloped by the smell of the earth and an overwhelming sense of solidarity. Ours is standing up now. We check that Georgia is organised – markers unravelled and hung on gas tanks in order, instruments velcroed on the burner poles, QNH set, flight computer clipped into place and a radio check – “Bronni, do you read me one, two, three, four?”

“Reading you five, six, seven, eight Georgia Croft. PS love ya!” I say into the hand-held.

I run twenty meters to look out and above. “George, you’re clear to climb – just watch the green balloon to your left. Otherwise, good to go.” And she’s departed.

I run back to the vehicle to do a quick go-around. Lauren’s good – she’s covered everything, but we always check – double check everything. It’s double redundancy. Or we refer to the Swiss Cheese Model. Those holes will not align!

THE FLIGHT

Once Georgia takes off we go straight to the spot that will enable us to help her the most. This can vary a lot. If the winds are strong and the balloons are moving quickly, as crew, we might (with the input of the pilot) decide to skip the first task and move promptly to the second so we can firmly establish and report exactly what is happening on the ground there. After all, once in the air, Georgia can watch and communicate with other pilots to gain an insight into what’s up ahead. 

We get to the target – it’s there, right across from us in the paddock – and park up, grabbing a limp black balloon and running to the trailer to fill it with hydrogen. Once we have an extra-sized party balloon, we check the stopwatch and let it go. If you’ve made it the right size, the pi-ball will ascend at 300 ft per minute. I grasp the radio in one hand, making sure it’s well away from the compass I’m holding to my eye, and read the pi-ball for a minute and a half, broadcasting what I’ve seen to Georgia. She descends below five hundred feet and enters the MMA, or target area. GAME ON. We nibble nervously on some cashews. Rattle into the radio. It gets intense – but we have no control now, only George. 

She completes the task, and we are off again – speeding to the next target, or racing to ascertain her landing position. Ballooning is a gentlewoman’s sport – we always do our best to find the owner of the country we take off from and land on, to ask permission or say thank you. We are yet to experience a negative response, for which we are very grateful, and sometimes these spontaneous conversations become one of the reasons we love ballooning so much.

GETTING IT DOWN

On the second last day, in a fast wind, Georgia is forced to land in an available paddock – resulting in an up-against-a-barbed-wire-fence situation. Deano is on the scene, and also Ain (our photographer, who makes the quick decision to leave all cams in the car and dash to our rescue). A carpet was thrown over the sharp bits and the balloon collapses without a blemish to its complexion. Not only does Ain make us look pretty on Instagram all week, he also helps keep us that way in real life!

PACKING IT UP

It’s the last morning of competition. She’s landed safely… and it’s my favourite location to date – inside a small, semi-dry dam on a winery. We arrive to find her embracing a tiny, very excited dog from the inside of another fence.

“I could’ve flown on but I thought you’d really get a thrill from retrieving the balloon from here, you know! It’d be really impressive!” She knows us too well. Lucky my trailer-reversing skills are on point.

If you’re thinking ballooning is not for you – you’re wrong! You only need to be flexible, adaptable, and open to the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with the most enthusiastic, unique, and welcoming community of people I’ve ever met. It’s a beautiful thing. And besides, in any kind of aviation, the subconscious, habitual observation of micro-meteorology is a skill that could, one day, very much come in handy.

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 265 Airnews Magazine, Winter Edition 2019

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