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Feet on the ground

Malcolm Philcox explains the role of the all-important ground crew in hot air ballooning

It is ten in the evening. You are slumped in front of the "box", aimlessly channel hopping because there is nothing on worth watching, but you cannot be bothered to do anything more worthwhile. The phone rings. Eventually you drag yourself up. "Hello" An enthusiastic voice on the other end asks: "Are you available in the morning, say 5:30". If the very thought of this makes you feel weary, and you seriously Don not Do Early Mornings, crewing is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, despite the fatigue you can raise some enthusiasm, if your initial reaction is "YES", you obviously have the main characteristic of good crew member.

The crew are the unsung heroes of ballooning. Pilots swan about the sky and talk endlessly of their exploits, but they can do none of this without extensive support. Before take off the crew do most of the lifting, dragging and rigging while the pilot checks his maps, the wind, his instruments, all the lightweight stuff. After the flight the crew does most of the packing away while the pilot checks and double checks his position, chats to the farmer, admires his crop, tractor, grass, cattle, dog and or wife, answers stupid questions from spectators, folds his maps, refolds his maps, puts his instruments back in their cases, and so on.

So why do I enjoy crewing so much. I enjoy a flight when offered, and certainly when I was first hooked this was the main attraction. However, as I got increasingly involved this became less of a factor. The majority of crew genuinely enjoy the close teamwork that is involved. Retrieving efficiently is a challenge. The manual says that: "If flying a balloon is a science, then carrying out the retrieve is undoubtedly an art" If you can get your pilot to participate in a retrieve occasionally, he or she will enjoy it more than they care to admit. Even so, many pilots are hopeless on the ground. They tend to be impatient, and their navigation is not up to the task. They’re used to the land being laid out like the map a few hundred feet below them, and even then they check their position by GPS

Crew on the other hand have to be expert navigators. You not only need to know where you are but also where the balloon is. The balloon will travel in a more or less straight line, but not the retrieve vehicle you have to go where the roads will allow you, and a good sense of direction is a prime requisite. Good map reading skills soon develop. Experience helps you to choose the correct strategy to ensure that you are with the balloon when it lands. My personal goal is to see the balloon land about 90 per cent of the time, and to be in the field waiting for it on 25 per cent of flights.

You also need to be pretty thick skinned. Pilots get stressed on occasions, and this can be reflected in radio messages, such as this recent gem of exasperation from a pilot some time after landing, to his crew still searching while experiencing radio difficulties "We are up the track opposite "such and such a farm", you Deaf Old Bat". Not the way to keep your crew contented, and hardly the correct radio procedure, but a moment of pure joy for all who overheard it

In the past most people’s introduction to ballooning was being dragged out as crew for a friend. These days, I suspect for the majority it is a passenger ride, often a present, in a big balloon with several others. And let is face it, commercial operators are not in the business of generating excitement. They have a vested interest in providing a pleasant experience for as wide a public as possible. But for just a few individuals after that unforgettable first flight, they cannot wait to get more involved. This is one of the challenges facing keen advocates of the sport at the moment how to tie in these enthusiasts. Some have difficulty even finding out how to make contact. More surprisingly there are some well-established balloonists who feel there are enough people involved already, and wish to limit access. They talk about the number of non-landing areas there are already, and speculate how more balloons would make the situation worse.

Why am I still as keen after 18 years. Retrieving a balloon you discover places that most of the public will never see. Even on home ground I am still finding wonderful spots I never knew existed. Abroad you go to areas bypassed by tourists, meet locals who never normally come across foreigners and the balloon ensures the warmest of welcomes. Ballooning has given me many wonderful opportunities – I have crewed all round Europe and in Japan, and with involvement in competition have been to European and World Championships. But, to be honest, the people I meet are the most important factor. Balloonists around the world tend to be patient individuals and good company. Because of the uncertainties of the weather, you can spend ages waiting for things to happen, or not to happen and while you are hanging about, you just chat. If you are don’t enjoy this unscheduled social side of ballooning, you soon give up.

The best way to start is to contact your regional club and go along to a meeting or two. Any pilot should have contact details, or you can ask at balloon meets. There are always pilots on the lookout for keen crew, and once your face is known, and you have shown continuing interest and some aptitude, you will be in demand.

The BBAC, British Balloon and Airship Club runs a crew training scheme which has recently been updated. The excellent crew training manual, containing details of the scheme, is a comprehensive guide to crewing. Manual, £5.00 inc. p&p and details from: Rick Hatton, BBAC Training Officer, 6 Nova Scotia Place, Bristol, BS1 6XJ. emailU hattonrick@hotmail.com

laying out balloon

1. First job for the crew at the launch site is unpacking all the equipment.Rigging the basket involves mounting the burner, installing cylinders, connecting fuel hoses and flying wires. Laying out the envelope looks easy enough, but there is a correct procedure to ensure the envelope inflates well with the fan, before the pilot uses the burner at all

installing the parachute

2. Installing the parachute. How easy this is depends on the way the balloon was packed away last. In theory it is simply a matter of using the parachute lines to align the parachute with the main body of the envelope, and pressing the corresponding Velcro tabs together firmly. But sometimes there can be a dreadful muddle of fabric and lines, and then you simply have to stop and wait until there is some air in the envelope. This makes it much easier to sort out the mess

balloon inflation

3. Holding open the mouth. In most conditions this is not a vital job, and some pilots inflate without people on the mouth. When there is more wind, especially if it is gusty, the pilot appreciates someone each side holding the mouth of the envelope open so he or she has a good opening in which to direct the burner. You must always wear gloves and keep your arms and legs covered while you do this. Shorts and tee-shirt are potentially dangerous. You will need protection if the burner flame is deflected just a small amount. In fact you should wear suitable clothing wherever you are stationed when inflating a balloon. You never know when your assistance might be required in an emergency and correct clothing is one way you can be prepared. Sadly too many people who ought to know better ignore this rule. Bravado has no place anywhere in ballooning

opperating the crown line

4. The function of the person on the crown line is to keep the envelope steady during inflation, and to stop it rising too soon so the pilot can get ample hot air into the envelope before it goes upright. This is a fight you will never win. You are not there to prevent the balloon rising, simply to delay the inevitable, and your weight will help the pilot control the process. Again gloves are vital if you are to avoid rope burns, and good footwear gives you more control. Decline all offers of help. You must get used to losing the battle in public each time you inflate

driving the retrieve vehicle

6. The retrieve is your opportunity to act independently. Don not be in too much of a hurry to leave the launchsite. Take a bearing of the balloons course after a few minutes, and then refer to your map Navigating a retrieve is a skill that you will never fully master, but it is fascinating to try. You should aim to be in sight of the balloon when it lands. But the strategy you adopt depends on the terrain, the roads available, and the wind conditions. This is the skill that gives experienced crew the real buzz. Do not let your pilot spoil it by doing your navigation for you from the air, giving you directions by radio. The radio is for conveying important information. Get into the habit of using the correct procedure. The pilot may warn you when he or she is about to land, and if you manage to get ahead of the balloon you can give advance warning of, for example, horses on the line of flight

deflation on landing

7. Packing away is usually the worst job. Squeezing the air out of the envelope, de-rigging and loading the retrieve vehicle. However it has the important function in the morning of sharpening your appetite for a Full English Breakfast, and in the evening increasing your thirst. The authors father-in-law had an appropriate expression "a thirst I wouldn’t sell"

opperating the fan

5. The fan. If there are enough of you, one person should stand by the fan while the pilot is burning to keep the air directed into the envelope. Once the pilot signals, you turn off the fan, and move it well clear of the basket