How to Land



Learning to judge the descent rate and the time to flare for a smooth landing is no easy task for the neophyte airplane pilot. But the student airplane pilot has it easy compared to the new balloon pilot. At least the student airplane pilot can hit the throttle, pull up the nose, and have a near-instantaneous go-around. And the student airplane driver can have as many attempts at landing at the airport as fuel and daylight allows. The balloon pilot only gets one try per field!

A descent-to-landing in a balloon, or a practice descent to just above the treetops, can be a nervewracking experience for the new balloon pilot. Until you learn the fine art of flying by adjusting the rate of vertical velocity, and not just the vertical speed itself, the trees or the ground seem to rush up at you until a crash seems imminent. It seems that the balloon is never going to slow it's descent, and you keep pulling the blast valve to add more and more heat. Usually, the inevitable result is the student aeronaut (or rusty licensed one) to breathe a sigh of relief as the balloon stops descending 50 feet above the treetops or the ground. But then, muttered curses as all that excess heat so furiously and frantically added takes the balloon up in an increasingly rapid climb. Another missed landing field!

Of course, not adding enough heat to properly slow your descent is interesting too. Your instructor curses this time, blasts the burner (or both of them if you have two in your balloon) and accuses you of attempting to "stuff it into the trees" or even of trying to "brick it into the top of a Volkswagen". (Balloon instructors do seem to have a more interesting way with words than airplane instructors!)

Developing a fine touch for descending and leveling off at a spot in the air one aims for opens up a whole world of possibilities not open to the airplane pilot. Leaf-picking contests are one popular fun contest at eastern rallies. (Westerners have tumbleweed dropping contests!) One soon learns that the tops of trees are generally supple and springy and fun to play in. (One story has it that a pilot-aeronaut used this knowledge to good advantage when the engine quit on his airplane. He calmly landed in the treetops and walked away from the airplane with hardly a scratch.)

Water landings are also avidly sought by balloonists in small ponds, lakes, and even rivers, sometimes resulting in magnificent calendar photos. Proper technique is to just put the bottom inch or two of the basket in the water. Poor technique can be quite effective in cleaning out leaves, twigs, and other debris from around one's propane tanks. Really poor technique can require the assistance of local boaters to retrieve one's very waterlogged balloon!

When you decide that it is time for your final landing, you look for an open field ahead of your path which is firm and dry, away from animals and buildings, and one which is reasonably close to a road where your chase crew can assist in your retrieval. Landing at the nearest airport is rarely an option, and the balloon's slow speed would tend to make it unpopular around an airport pattern except as a random curiosity anyway. A vitally important criteria for a landing site is that there are no power lines downwind of the chosen landing spot. Hitting powerlines is the number one cause of fatalities and severe injuries in ballooning, and a key rule-of-thumb for balloonists is never to descend over powerlines. This obviously can complicate an approach to fields near roads. Even a landing after passing powerlines must be attempted with great caution, as there may be rotor winds below a tree line which can cause a balloon to drift back into powerlines overflown on the landing approach.

The final landing at the end of your balloon flight may be a nice, gentle stand-up landing (where the balloon and it's occupants all end up upright after the landing), or it may be a rip landing. A rip landing, to the uninitiated, may look like a controlled crash. To onlookers who know absolutely nothing about ballooning, it may look like an uncontrolled crash and could result in unnecessary calls to the police. Whether the landing is a stand-up or a rip landing depends on the wind velocity at ground level. In a balloon, you're always landing downwind, and there's no such thing as landing into the wind!

For a stand-up landing with no chase crew assistance, winds at ground level have to be almost calm. It may be possible to find calm conditions in the lee of a stand of trees even when winds above the trees are blowing up to 10 mph. To dissipate forward speed, a balloon pilot may purposely allow the balloon's basket (not the fabric!) to drag through treetops, and then vent out hot air as the balloon breaks loose from the last tree to drop into the field immediately beyond.

If your chase crew is really good and has actually anticipated your intentions and flight path, you may have an additional option at a field that would otherwise be too small to land in. With your chase crew below you, you can throw down a dropline and have them drag you to a stop or even pull you to a field off to the side of your track.

If winds at the surface are more than 5 to 10 mph, a rip landing may be necessary. To make a rip landing, you aim at a spot in the air about ten feet above the ground on the upwind side of a suitable, long open field. With the balloon over this spot, you pull the red ripline, pulling out the velcro or spring riptop or pulling down the parachute top fully, immediately dumping most of the hot air out of the balloon. The landing will be firm, and your passengers must be warned to hang on and to expect to be bounced around a bit. And you had better be sure of your intentions, as a go-around from a rip landing attempt is not possible. With a combination of luck and skill, a rip landing will be firm with little dragging along the ground, and the balloon's envelope will collapse to the ground downwind of the basket. While all this sounds absolutely awful, it can be a great deal of fun, with pilot and crew sprawled all over each other and laughing and cracking jokes when the balloon has stopped!


The ballooning experience doesn't end with the landing. After the landing, it's time to pack up the balloon, hopefully with the assistance of your able and on-the-scene chase crew. Packing up the balloon is physically strenuous work. First, with at least one person on the crown line to guide the balloon's deflation, the burners are turned off and the deflation port (springtop or parachute top) is pulled open. The balloon's fabric envelope slowly sinks to the ground, as the crew helps the pilot to tip over the basket and keep the skirt fabric off the still hot burners. The envelope must have residual hot air squeezed out of it (a very strenuous task!) The spring top is resecured, and then the envelope is packed into it's bag with two people holding the bag open and two more lifting up the fabric. Getting the balloon out of the field is work too. The envelope in it's storage bag weighs two hundred pounds or more, the empty basket may weigh an additional three hundred pounds. A wise and capable pilot will pick a field where the chase vehicle can be backed right up to the packed up balloon!

It's also time for the pilot to seek out the landowners to express his or her thanks for the use of their property and to present them with the traditional bottle of champagne, a tradition going back to the earliest balloonists in France. Most landowners will at worst be ambivalent about your landing on their property, and many, fortunately, will be thrilled and even honored by your presence. For unhappy landowners, the surprise of being presented with the champagne may often change their frowns to smiles.

After all the work is done, it's time to pop the cork on another bottle of champagne to toast another magnificent flight, to welcome first time passengers into the ranks of aeronauts, and to salute your chase crew's valiant efforts.

Champagne or no champagne, it's truly an intoxicating way to fly!