How Competition Works
Competition ballooning is conducted using standard rules as published by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). These rules set out the tasks that can be used during a competition and how a champion pilot will be decided. Competitions take place at National, Regional, International and World level. While the World Championships are conducted every two years, the Australian National Championships are held annually.
Can you steer the balloon?
Yes and no. There is no direct mechanical means of controlling lateral movement for a hot air balloon, but a change in direction can be achieved by utilizing the wind currents at hand. Sometimes, at different altitudes, the wind will vary in general direction. By climbing or descending into these layers of air, the pilot is able to manoeuvre the balloon onto a preferred line of travel.
How do you race a balloon?
The competitive events in a balloon competition are called tasks. Several tasks can be specified for each flight. The tasks for a particular flight are determined before the flight commences, after assessment of the weather and other factors. The most tasks do not involve a competition based purely on maximum time, distance, or altitude as record flights do. Rather competition flights require pilots to exercise skill in manoeuvring their balloons over a set course with goals, targets, scoring areas, time and distance limits.
Good results in competition tasks are achieved using a combination of winds at various altitudes to fly in the direction of a goal and accurately approach the target within the designated competition area. Balloons do not land on the target itself. Crew members aboard the balloons drop markers onto or as close to the target as they can fly. The markers are small sandbags with streamers attached. Some balloons will skim just above the ground, while others may be 1000's of feet in the sky when they release their marker. The straight-line distance between the spot where the marker lands and the target itself is the measured result. The balloonist whose marker lands the shortest distance from the target is awarded the most points. Other tasks involve flying the minimum or maximum distance in a set time, achieving the greatest change in direction and other demonstrations of flying skill.
Competition tasks are explained here in more detail.
Important Factors in Competition
Catching the wind
Pilots must accurately gauge the speed, direction, and strength of the winds, and be able to predict forecast changes. The direction of the wind is usually associated with altitude.
Reading a Map
The pilots must have a good understanding of the competition area based on the rules of the competition. They must be able to gauge the effect of wind drafts resulting from topological conditions and other factors.
Hot air balloons are piloted by one person but teamwork is an indispensable part of the competition. It comes into play during pursuit by a retrieve crew on the ground during the competition, and as the race develops accurate information from the ground crew is very important for the pilot.
The only ways to control a hot air balloon are by operating the burner and vent. Operation of the burner is very easy, so any nervousness or emotional tension resulting in over-control have an immediate and dramatic effect on the balloon's flight. Pilots must control their emotions so they can demonstrate their abilities with an even temperament at all times.
Points are awarded for each task, and the balloon with the highest aggregate score wins. Therefore, it is important that crews do not fail by trying to score too many points in any one task instead of achieving a good average over all tasks.
Results of competitors are calculated by the distance between their markers and goals or targets. A pilot who drops his marker closest to the target will be scored 1000 points. Scores of the top 50% of pilots in the competition will be calculated by comparing their results with those of the winning pilot. This means if a competitor's result is close to the first placed pilot he will be awarded points close to 1000 points. The mid fleet pilot will score about 500 points and pilots in the lower 50% of competitors will be scored by evenly dividing the remaining 500 points. The scoring system advantages pilots in the top half of the fleet.