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Unsung Heros

By Phil Brown, Flower Mound, Texas

We are who? We are crew!

If you've been cruising around on HotAirBallooning.com, you have seen explanations of how balloons fly, what makes them fly, and you've found answers to often asked questions.

We are the answer to the often-asked question: "Who are all those people around the balloon?"

How does the balloon get in the air in the first place? That's where the ground crew (or chase crew, two names, same job) comes in. Our #1 job is to assist the pilot. This includes setting up the balloon, helping to make sure the basket is arranged and stocked with those things the pilot likes to take along, and to help achieve a safe lift off. Once that is done, we take the chase vehicle and follow the balloon for an hour or so.

When the pilot has located a nice field for landing, we will be informed (usually by radio) of the landing site. The goal of the crew is two fold here; we want to have the vehicle at the landing field before the pilot lands, and still have enough time to be waiting in the selected field to assist in any way with the landing operation. Sound pretty simple? Well... it is, most of the time! I have often explained our task as 90% just plain common sense, and 10% training.

Every task the crew performs has a reason for why it is done a certain way, and once that reason is discovered, it makes perfect sense. The trick to learning is to ask questions. Lots of questions. I have met many pilots, and have assisted with the set up of every major brand of balloon. I have asked hundreds of questions. I have yet to have any pilot treat a question like it was silly of me to ask.

One thing that makes ballooning difficult for the ground crew is one of the same things that make it exciting: the weather. Here in Texas the winds are almost always changing. Depending on what phase of the flight is being accomplished when those winds change means the ground crew must adapt their methods to deal with those changes. This is exactly why hot air ballooning is so exciting. Every single flight is different!

Even if the pilot happens to land in the same field twice (which doesn't happen often) the winds will probably be different. This means the take off and or landing will have something different that needs to happen to help make it a safe flight. That is our job, to help the pilot conduct a safe flight. That's why we are here. (Besides having fun!)

How do you become part of a chase crew? You can look up in the sky and follow the next balloon you see until it lands. Please allow the crew to pack the balloon away before you approach the basket. Then all you have to do is tell one of the crew that you are interested in ballooning. You will more than likely be directed to the pilot, who will either snatch you up for their own crew, then and there, or place you in contact with someone who can find you a home.

The other way is to look in the phone book (here in Texas we look under "Balloons, Manned"). This will place you in contact with a ride operator (someone who is paid to take you on a balloon flight). You can tell them of your interest in balloons and ask for any information or local club you could contact.

Most balloons have a crew of between 3 to 6 people. Most balloon crews are volunteer, and do not get paid. For most of us, it is a hobby. It's how we work off the stresses of the week, and get together to have a good time with an ever-changing hobby.

A balloon crew is literally a family affair. Crew people come in all shapes and sizes: singles, married, & entire families can be found. Pick any combination of these types of folks, and they are here too. There are crew people ranging from new born babies, to folks well into their 80's still enjoying the sport. The only special skill needed for the balloon ground crew is a willingness to learn and ask questions. Some tasks require a fair amount of physical strength, but don't worry, there are even more tasks that do not. I have an 8-year-old son who helps with everything he is able to do. But he does help. There are jobs for even young balloonists.

I hope you will come back from time to time, as I intend to take a look at each of the major tasks involved during a balloon flight for the chase crew.


Phil Brown is Crew Chief for 'Big Bird' flown by Jeff Kaufman of Plano, Texas. He has been crewing since 1988.
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