Balloon races are popular throughout the world, especially during summer
months. We are often asked, "How do balloons race?" The term 'racing'
may not be the best choice of words when talking about balloon competitions
because balloons don't 'race' in the normal sense of the word. It isn't
a 'first across the finish line' endeavor.
their simplest form, balloon competitions score how close a pilot can
get to a pre-determined target. Small weighted markers are dropped at
the target. The challenge is to be the closest to the target, but unlike
all other forms of flying, balloon pilots do not have direct control
of their direction of flight. The balloon simply drifts with the wind.
Competition pilots have become quite skilled in reading the winds aloft
and using them to their advantage to get where they want to be (the target!).
Competitors have gotten so good that the difference between first place
and third or fourth can be fractions of an inch.
have developed extremely complicated tasks for pilots to accomplish,
and many pilots lose points for rules violations even though they flew
quite well. Here is a sampling of some of the tasks competitors may
be assigned to fly. The first four are fairly simple competitions that
are very popular at festivals that offer light competition. The others
will give you an idea of the complexity of tasks that occur during heavy
competition like world or national championships.
Hare and Hound
All the balloons launch from the same site, usually a festival. One
balloon takes off first and is the hare balloon. The other balloons
are called the hounds, and they will launch a predetermined time after
the hare. The hare lands at a suitable site and lays out a large fabric
X, usually about 50 feet in diameter. The hound balloons attempt to
drop their markers as close to the center of the X as possible. The
closest marker achieves the highest score.
Convergent Navigational Task (CNT)
The target X is placed in a secure area, usually the festival site.
The balloons can launch anywhere they want as long as they are outside
of a predetermined radius from the X, usually 1, 2, or 3 miles. Pilots
fly in, drop their markers at the X, and scoring is based on the distance
from the center of the X.
This is a two-part task that combines a CNT with a Hare and Hound. Competitors
take off outside of a predetermined radius of the first target (usually
at the festival site) and drop their first marker. The hare balloon
launches from the first X and the hound balloons continue on to drop
their second marker at the X set down by the hare.
A Key grab is nearly identical to a CNT, but instead of an X at the
target, a pole 10 or 20 feet high is the target. A detachable ring is
fastened to the top of the pole. The first pilot who removes the ring
wins the prize. Prizes can be almost anything; new cars, cash, and even
new balloons have been given away! An X for a CNT is often placed near
the pole and the two tasks are flown simultaneously. Throw your marker
and grab the ring - you can do quite well in a single flight!
Minimum Distance Double Drop
The judges define two scoring areas. The task is to drop one marker
in each scoring area, with the shortest distance between the two markers
achieving the highest score. Watch out, though - in an effort to get
your markers as close together as possible, one marker might drift outside
the boundaries of a scoring area, resulting in no score.
Pilots take off from a common launch point (point A) and fly to a judge
declared goal (point B). One marker is dropped at point B. The pilot
then tries to change the direction of flight and drop a second marker
at a point (point C) that will result in the smallest angle between
point A and point C.
Multiple Pilot Declared Goal
The competition director will assign pilots to drop markers at multiple
targets of their choice. Targets are usually road intersections or road
- railroad intersections. Sounds easy! But the targets must be identified
by their map coordinates. The first target's coordinates must be declared
before launch, the coordinates for the second target must be written
on the tail of the marker dropped at the first target, and so on. Errors
in writing down the coordinates or choosing a target that is difficult
to get to can cost precious points.
As you can see, balloon competitions can be very challenging. Serious
competitors use very sophisticated computer programs to track wind speed
and direction before they fly, and use GPS (Global Positioning System)
receivers in the balloon during flight to assist in determining the
best altitude to fly to get to the next target.
In the early days of competition flying, some pilots felt lucky to
drop a marker within a hundred feet of a target. Today, the center of
a target can have dozens of markers within a foot of its center. Sometimes
penalty points or a rules violation can make the difference between
winning and losing.