Hot Air Balloon Competition 101

Intro to Hot Air Ballooning Competitions

Do Balloons Race?

Have you ever seen a blue sky filled with hot air balloons?

Their rainbow colors expand creating a scene that can take your breath away!

It's hard to believe when watching them float lazily up and away that they are competing in balloon races.

It must be the slowest race in the world!

Can you just imagine the start of the race?

Ready!  Set!  Float!

A great sight, but perhaps not very exciting. . .

The fact is a hot air balloon race is not a race in the way one might expect.  There is no waving of a starter’s flag or firing of a starter’s pistol.  The balloons don't actually "race" at all.

NATIONALS 2013

Navigational Contest

A balloon race is actually a navigation contest – a competition to determine who can best navigate their balloon to one or more locations.  

  • Duration

    A competitive balloon flight is usually about an hour long, during which the participants compete to see who most accurately completes one or more tasks. 

  • Awarding Points

    The competitor achieving the best result in a task receives 1,000 points, and all other competitors receive between 1,000 and 0 points, based on their performance compared to the winner.

  • The Winner Is

    The champion is the competitor who accumulates the most points over the event.  To declare a champion, there usually has to be at least two (2) flights and three (3) tasks completed.

Competition Factors

  • Catching The Wind

    Balloons can only go where the wind takes them – they cannot go against or into the wind.  The speed and direction oF the wind usually varies, often significantly, with altitude and time.  Pilots must accurately gauge the speed and direction Of the winds at various altitUdes, and be able to pRedict changes.

  • Reading a Map

    Balloon competitionS take place over a wIde area – an area about 50 km X 50 km.  Pilots must have a good understanding of the competition area and must be able to gauge the effect of topographical features on the wind drafts resulting.

  • Teamwork

    A hot air balloon flight requireS the coordination of a team.  Without their teammates, the pilot could not freely practice their sport.  The retrieve crew hElps with balloon setup and inflation.  Once the balloon has taken off, the teammates maintain visual and/or radio contact with the pilot and follow the balloon up to where it lands.  Once the hot air balloon has landed, the retrieVe crew obtains landowner permission prior to entEring private property, proceeds to the ballooN and helps with the pack-up and recovery.

  • Pushing the Envelope

    Balloon competitions can be very demanding and exciting to be involved in.  They add a completely new aspect to balloon flying.  Some competitors work as teams and even use compuTer programmers to help them forecast and plan their flights.  The use of a GPS (Global Positioning System) to assist witH navigation and goal selection is now very common in competitions at all levels.  Balloon competitions have now come a long way – competitors must often have to dRop a marker within 1 or 2 meters from the cEnter of a target to bE the winner.

Tasks

The competitive events in a balloon competition are called tasks.

  • Determining Tasks

    The tasks for a particular flight are determined before the flight begins, after assessment of the weather and other factors.

  • Range of Skills

    Competition flights require pilots to exercise skill in maneuvering their balloons over a set course with goals, targets, scoring areas, time and distance limits.

  • Getting Results

    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.

  • Finding the Target

    Balloons do not land on the target itself.  Pilots of 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.

  • Measuring Results

    The distance between the spot where the marker lands and the target is the result.  The balloonist whose marker lands the shortest distance from the center of 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 tests of flying skill.

Festival Tasks

The Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival hosts championship events in some years. When not hosting a championship, the Hare and Hounds task is assigned for all flights as it is a more relaxing and friendly competition. 

In Hare and Hounds, a single balloon (the hare) launches ahead of the others, lands and lays out a target. Once the remaining balloons (the hounds) launch, they search for the hare's landing spot and drop a marker on the target. Points are awarded based on closest distance to the target centre.

Task Types

Different skills are tested with different types of tasks. These can vary depending on the level of competition you are in but most countries now use the same set of formally recognized tasks, which are set by the FAI/CIA.  Listed below are many of the more common tasks currently being used by the world ballooning competition organizations:

  • Pilot Declared Goal (PDG)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to a goal selected and declared by him before flight.  The result is the distance from the mark to nearest valid declared goal.  Smallest result is best.

  • Judge Declared Goal (JDG)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to a set goal.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target, if displayed, or goal.  Smallest result is best.

  • Multiple Judge Declared Goal (MJDG) or Hesitation Waltz (HWZ)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to one of several set goals.  The result is the distance from the mark to the nearest target, if displayed, or goal.  Smallest result is best.

  • Fly In (FIN)

    Competitors find their own launch areas and attempt to drop a marker close to a set goal or target.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target, if displayed, or goal.  Smallest result is best.

  • Fly On (FON)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to a goal selected and declared by them during flight.  The result is the distance from the mark to the nearest valid declared goal.  Smallest result is best.  The competitor must write clearly on the previous marker the declared goal for fly on.  If the previous marker is not dropped or no goal is written on the marker the competitor will not achieve a result.

  • Hare and Hounds (HNH)

    Competitors follow a hare balloon and attempt to drop a marker close to a target displayed by the hare no more than two meters upwind of the basket after landing.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target.  Smallest result is best.

  • Watership Down (WSD)

    Competitors fly to the launch point of a hare balloon, follow the hare and attempt to drop a marker close to a target displayed by the hare no more than two meters upwind of the basket after landing.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target.  Smallest result is best.

  • Gordon Bennett Memorial (GBM)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker within a scoring area(s) close to a set goal.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target, if displayed, or goal.  Smallest result is best.

  • Calculated Rate of Approach Task (CRAT)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker within a valid scoring area close to a set goal.  The scoring area(s) will have unique times of validity.  The result is the distance from the mark to the target, if displayed, or goal.  Smallest result is best.  A competitor who does not achieve a mark inside a scoring area during its time of validity, will not achieve a result.

  • Race To An Area (RTA)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker in the shortest time within a scoring area(s).  The result is the elapsed time from take off to the marker drop.  Smallest result is best.  The timing ends at the moment the marker is released, falling or on the ground as seen by the observer or recovered in the hands of the observer whichever is first.

  • Elbow (ELB)

    Competitors attempt to achieve the greatest change of direction in flight.  The result is 180 degrees minus the angle ABC.  Greatest result is best.

  • Land Run (LRN)

    Competitors attempt to achieve the greatest area of a triangle "A", "B" and "C."  The result is the area of triangle ABC.  Greatest result is best.

  • Minimum Distance (MDT)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to the common launch point, after flying a minimum set time.  The result is the distance from the mark to the launch point.  Smallest result is best.

  • Shortest Flight (SFL)

    Competitors attempt to drop a marker close to the launch point within a set scoring area(s).  The result is the distance from the mark to the launch point.  Smallest result is best.

  • Minimum Distance Double Drop (MDD)

    Competitors attempt to drop two markers close together in different scoring areas.  The result is the distance between the marks.  Smallest result is best.

Ballooning Organizations

  • The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)

    FAI is the worldwide governing body for air sports.  It regulates competition for all forms of aircraft including aerostats (balloons), fixed wing, rotary wing (helicopters), parachutes, sailplanes and hang gliders.  The FAI is associated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and functions similarly.

  • FAI Ballooning Commission (CIA)

    Comité International d'Aérostation or CIA) is the worldwide governing body for international ballooning championships, competitions and record activities.

  • Aero Club of Canada (ACC)

    The Aero Club of Canada (ACC) represents the FAI in Canada.

  • Canadian Balloon Association (CBA)

    The Canadian Balloon Association (CBA) is a member of the ACC and represents Canadian balloonists to the CIA.

  • Transport Canada

    Transport Canada regulates ballooning in Canada.  Balloon pilots are licensed pilots and balloons are aircraft.  As with all Canadian pilots and aircraft, pilots and balloons must meet strict certification requirements and balloons are inspected and re-certified at least annually.

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