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.
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.