(Originally posted on 2012-02-24 as /archives/7634)
I rode with pilot Pat Cannon during part of the 2001 Highland Village Balloon Festival. Mr. Cannon won the Balloon Federation of America National Championship a number of times, so this was an incredible opportunity to see just how precise balloon piloting can be.
The challenge was to fly a minimum distance, and put a bean bag on a target.
We met at the event’s location for the pre-flight pilot meeting. Balloons are best-piloted during early morning or early evening (the Trey Ratcliff hours), so this was very early in the day.
We participated in the First Flight Ceremony. In my case this involved the pilot saying some words, and pouring champagne on my hair, but I observed other folks participating in another “secret version”. 1%-ers have nothing on balloonists.
We drove to the location, unfolded the balloon, and filled it with hot air (see image above). A number of other pilots followed our chase vehicle, and began their flights from nearby (see image below), but there was nothing special about that location piloting-accuracy-wise. Mr. Cannon chose that location because that’s where he wanted to land at the end of the event. The location chosen was a new development that was under-construction. The roads where there, and were free of debris, but construction had not yet begun on any of the homes. We used one of the roads like a heliport.
Before preparing to take off, he launched a small black helium balloon called a pie-ball (short for pilot-balloon). He used a sextant to follow the pie-ball, and estimated the wind’s speed and direction at various altitudes.
The pilot steers the balloon by choosing a direction, and then going to the altitude who’s wind is blowing in that direction. The balloon requires a certain amount of time to get to any chosen altitude, so the pilot needs to plan for that, and the intervening wind vectors, at each step.
Before leaving the pilot told me that we were going to:
- Fly over Lake Lewisville
- Make a 90-degree direction-change over the lake
- Fly to the target, which was here, and then
- Fly back to our starting place.
That’s exactly what he did:
- We flew a right-triangle
- Mr. Pat Cannon tossed his bean bag within 2-feet of the target’s center and then
- We then returned to the chase vehicle. No chasing required.
My legs were shaking during the first half of the trip. I have a fear of heights. Motorcycle riding in bad weather has helped me cure much of that since then.
One amazing thing about ballooning is that you can hear everything on the ground. Your vehicle is travelling at exactly the speed of the wind. Sound is as clear as if their were no wind at all.
People run out of their houses to see the balloon. This is early morning, so they are half-dressed. They notice that the pilot can see them in their nightwear and then run back into their houses.
Boaters were also on the lake to see the balloons. Pat Cannon brought his basket down to visit some boaters. He was able to have the bottom of the basket skim the water, but our feet never got wet, and I never saw any water on the basket floor. Another balloonist attempted to do that too, and his basket immediately laid-down on its side in the water; he, and his passengers got wet.
Are angry landowners a risk when landing? Yes. Pat Cannon told me about a landowner that started shooting his balloon as he flew over the shooter’s property. He was not even trying to land there. Mr. Cannon was well-prepared with the two-way radios that pilot’s use, a GPS, and even a mobile phone. The shooter was surprised when the police arrived at the scene. (Robert Munafo told me that people like to shoot trains too.)
Pilot Pat Cannon is an extremely skilled pilot. He has most of the existing pilot endorsements. He flew helicopters for the US Army during the Vietnam War. He is a FAA safety examiner, and he regularly flies Mitsubishi MU-2s for Turbine Aircraft Services, Inc. where he is a Principal.
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