Teaching the Unknown A Balloon Instructor’s Guide to Flight Training Preparation

--by Adam Magee, FAA Safety Team Representative

Things that look easy can be quite difficult, in fact. Balloon flying is one of those things, and I can personally attest to the fact that it is more challenging to plan flight training in a hot air balloon than instruction in an airplane or helicopter. In a balloon, the instructor does not have the luxury of knowing where a landing will occur, nor is there the ability to fly to a practice area to work on specific maneuvers. Being at the mercy of the wind, hot air balloon training involves teaching the unknown and a more intense knowledge of microscale meteorology. Here are some tips to help you plan a safe and productive balloon training flight.

The FAA requires that the pilot in command (PIC) become familiar with all available information regarding the flight, including obtaining a weather briefing. However, planning a balloon flight involves more than simply obtaining a standard weather briefing or reading a routine weather report or area forecast. Using one of the many microscale meteorology resources such as www.ryancarlton.com or www.windy.com, hot air balloon pilots can get detailed winds aloft forecasts for their location at much lower altitudes than the standard 3, 6, and 9,000-foot forecasts provided in a standard weather briefing. Using Rapid Update Cycle (RUC) models, these sites provide winds aloft starting at the surface and increasing in altitude by small increments. Prior to the creation of these microscale meteorology resources, pilots had to use the winds aloft at 3,000 feet to judge an acceptable wind aloft speed.

Unless you live in an area that is significantly above sea level, knowing the winds at 3,000 feet will not always help you accurately judge the conditions you’ll need to conduct a safe flight. On many clear sky nights, especially in the Midwest, a temperature inversion will form with strong winds in the 500-800 foot range. Using a more microscale weather resource, pilots are able to see if the winds at altitudes above the surface are suitable for flight, and as well as when any fast winds are expected to drop down to the surface. Pilots can note a temperature inversion and the temperature to which the surface must warm in order for the winds to mix down to the surface. This allows pilots to know the time they should be on the ground.

My mother, a commercial pilot, took me for my first balloon flight at the age of five. The day started off unsuspecting with light winds. However, the inversion weakened and the stronger winds aloft dropped to the surface causing my first flight to involve a high wind, drag-out landing. While I loved the flight and especially the fun landing, I am sure my mother would have loved for these microscale weather sites to be available before she took her five-year-old up on what turned out to be a windy day.

Also of note are the forecasted temperatures and dew points, which are shown next to the forecasted wind speed for each altitude in the profile. This is very valuable and simplifies useful information usually found on the more complicated Skew-T chart. The last thing you’ll want is having fog roll in during your flight. I’ve heard stories of ground crews having to honk their horns to help guide pilots to safe landing spots. Noting the altitude where forecasted temperature and dew point are close can help pilots anticipate fog or low clouds.

At this point in the planning process, a flight instructor can begin to create a lesson plan based on the forecasted winds at their location. Using a paper map and plotter, or mapping software for an iPad such as MotionX, the instructor can plot out a take-off location which, based on the forecasted winds, would take the balloon to appropriate areas to practice maneuvers. Using the forecasted wind profiles, the instructor can plan ascents, descents, and level flight to navigate the balloon to suitable areas to practice landings before taking off again to resume the flight.

As the instructor and student approach flight time, small helium balloons called pibals can be used to measure the actual wind direction. By releasing a pibal and reading the direction on a compass, the instructor can fine-tune the planned flight plan based on the actual winds. In order to read a pibal correctly, instructors must be careful to visualize the balloon flight in three dimensions.

Some pilots release a pibal in a field and then as it ascends and turns with the direction of the wind, they sprint down the road to get an accurate pibal reading. There’s no need to work that hard! Use the following steps to accurately measure the wind direction.

As stated in the FAA’s Balloon Flying Handbook, the average pibal climbs at 300 feet per minute provided that there are no significant wind speed changes. With some quick calculations, we know that after 30 seconds, a pibal will be approximately 150 feet above ground (AGL).

To begin plotting the pibal recording information, release the pibal and track it with a compass. At 30 seconds, take a reading and make a mark on graph paper to represent the starting point. Make a second mark to represent the direction plotted. In Figure 3-6, a track of 300° at 5 mph is depicted. Label the first two points “A” and “B.”

Figure 3-6. First pibal plot showing 300° at 30 seconds.

At 1 minute, take a second reading. The pibal will be at approximately 300 feet AGL. In this example, the reading taken is 310°. Using your plotter, draw a line 10° off the original azimuth (the A-B line), and make another mark approximately two squares away from the mark labeled “B.” For clarity, this will be labeled “C.” See the example in Figure 3-7. (NOTE: The angles in the successive graphics are exaggerated for clarity.)

Figure 3-7. Second pibal plot showing 310° at 1 minute.

At 1:30 minutes, take another reading. The pibal should be at approximately 450 feet. Using the plotter, draw a line 30° off the original azimuth (the A-B line), and make another mark approximately two squares away from the mark labeled “C.” This mark may be labeled “D” for clarity (see Figure 3-8). This plotting can be continued as long as the pibal remains in sight.

Figure 3-8. Third pibal plot showing 330° at 1:30 minutes.

To determine the wind directions at different altitudes, extend lines between the plotted points as shown in Figure 3-9 back through the initial azimuth. Using the plotter, measure the angle between the lines (the angle between the A-B line and the C-D line). That angle, added to the original azimuth heading, gives a good approximation of the winds at that altitude. For the example shown in this sequence, the true track at 450 feet AGL is 005°.

Figure 3-9. A line drawn through the last two plots provides a basis to measure the angle and determine the wind at that altitude. In this case, it is 450 feet.

The information on basic surface winds and winds aloft readings gathered by this method can be used by a pilot to project a flight path and anticipated landing sites with a sectional or topographic map, or a tablet. This plot will form a “V,” with the cone beginning at the launch site. The two legs will represent the extremes of the plotted measurements. The difference between these two extremes is called steerage. Flying higher will track the flight path closer to the winds aloft reading, while contour flying (i.e., flying close to the surface) will put the balloon closer to the ground track leg. Varying altitude will allow the pilot to fly down the middle of the “V.” Accuracy will depend on the consistency of the conditions, but flight paths and landing sites may be predicted, through practice, with a high degree of reliability.

The balloon pilot, more so than pilots who fly other types of aircraft, must have the capability of visualizing the winds in three dimensions. Continued spatial awareness (how the balloon is moving through the air), is important for maintaining control of the balloon and navigating to the desired point on the ground. Every other safety measure taken is compromised by taking off without proper planning and an understanding of the winds and terrain to be navigated.

Instructors who want to really sharpen a more advanced student’s skills should pick points along the flight path and have the student navigate as close to that point as possible. For example, if there is a school with soccer fields one mile downwind, tell the student prior to launch that you want him or her to navigate to those fields and make an approach as close as possible to midfield. In this scenario, students can instantly see their ability to navigate and make a successful approach. Allow for time in the flight debrief to explain to the student how to improve navigation or how the approach could have been managed to be closer to midfield.

When you’re at the mercy of the wind, all plans can become nonexistent in a heartbeat. For that reason, flight instructors should always have a plan B, and sometimes a plan C for every flight. Just like our fixed-wing brethren, having a backup plan can go a long way to avoiding safety issues upon landing.

Take the time to plan your instructional flight and don’t forget to share your flight plans with your student! Teaching your student to master the unknown will help them better navigate and avoid safety issues throughout their ballooning career.

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Adam Magee is a commercial hot air balloon pilot/flight instructor and an FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Representative. He is Co-Founder/President of The Balloon Training Academy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and an appointed Training Provider of the FAASTeam.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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