Back to the Past

One man's look at changes in the ballooning over the years

The two FAA operations inspectors who had earlier watched my flight test from the ground finished their paperwork and handed me my balloon pilot certificate.  Once they had left, my instructor looked me in the eye and said, “You are now one of the old men of ballooning.”  After a moment’s reflection, I realized what he meant.  I was a pioneer in a sport that would grow unimaginably in the years to come.

The date was September 25, 1970.  I was 27 years old.  I had just become one of the 40 or so active balloon pilots in the U.S.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the many decades since.   So much for me that when I am visiting any of the world’s balloon museums I feel like one of the artifacts.


I realized recently that my many decades of experience in ballooning have made me a close observer of most of the evolution of modern hot air ballooning.  The sport has changed continuously during that time.  A lot of ballooning technique and equipment has been developed during that time.  And, equally important, much of this has been thrown onto the scrap heap where we had not earlier realized it belonged.  Balloons have steadily improved.  Balloonists have discovered and developed continuously improved technique for piloting.  And a stream of ancillary devices has made ballooning safer, and more convenient and enjoyable.   Because I really engaged with ballooning after I discovered it, I probably played some small part in discovering or creating better techniques and equipment, and also some that proved to be not so much better.


My own first balloon, like the one in which I learned, was a Raven S-50A.  It seemed like a great balloon.  For that time it was a great balloon.  It had a circular Velcro rip panel, a vertical slit side vent, and a two-can burner.  That was two little cans, not a double burner.  On a good day the burner could create heat at the rate of four million BTUs per hour.  The pilot light regularly went out in flight.  The pilot and passengers rode in a very rigid aluminum gondola with a horizontal 20-gallon aluminum tank on the floor at each end.  I learned to stay very much on top of keeping my balloon under control, because there was little extra heat available to counter the consequence of any lapse in attention.  I flew with a striker in my hand so that I could swiftly relight the burner when the pilot light failed.  I got used to the bumps and bruises imposed on my body by parts of the rigid gondola on rough landings.

Of course, over the years since then much has changed in the design of hot air balloons.  Many balloons now include a highly effective parachute valve, or some variant of one, atop the envelope for maneuvering in flight and deflation at the end.   They are made of fabrics that last longer, and they have non-conductive Kevlar envelope cables to make flying safer.  Woven baskets have almost completely replaced the early assortment of rigid gondolas available, making fast or hard landings less exciting, and adding a degree of elegance.


Burners have become much more powerful and have gained reliable pilot lights, giving much better control in flight.  My last competition balloon had a burner that, with everything on, produced heat at the rate of 52 million BTUs per hour – 13 times as fast as the burner on the balloon I learned in, or on my first balloon.  The one good thing that can be said about the burner on which I learned is that anyone who learned on that burner either learned well or had excessively exciting flights.  Also, as the sport grew, a larger assortment of stainless steel

and titanium tanks have been offered, making it possible to configure your balloon just the way that works best for you.

When I began flying balloons, piloting technique was anything but developed.  Early on I learned that one of the early masters of hot air ballooning taught that one should “step down” when descending, stopping the descent regularly to check the wind direction.  This made little sense to me and I quickly abandoned this technique, as I think most others also did.  In 1970, balloon piloting technique was pretty much an empty canvas for each pilot to fill in as he or she thought best.  I remember working to refine my

technique for determining quickly and accurately the exact direction the balloon was moving horizontally, by carefully watching how nearer and farther obstructions were moving relative to one another in my field of vision – a skill valuable both for flying to a good landing place and in the balloon competitions I enjoyed.


Landing in wind presented special challenges, whether it was behind a dense woods that could provide shelter or out in the open.  After a while I realized that contacting the ground hard was never a good idea.  Better to stop the descent just above the ground and then deflate as fast as the envelope would allow.  A spate of inflation-damaged balloon envelopes in our early repair station led us to design and build a supply of inflation burners, or wands – not one of our better ideas, since many of the people who had melted their envelopes during inflation without a hand-held inflation burner also did so with one.


In what I guess was an attempt to become the complete balloon pilot, I learned to inflate without an inflation fan.  I had seen people doing this by flapping air into their balloon envelopes almost to the point of exhaustion of the two mouth crew people.  I tried a different approach.  I briefed the mouth crew to hold the top of the mouth tautly between them against the ground and on my instruction quickly lift it as high as possible, then back down to the ground, then up as high as possible and hold it there.  After these one and half flaps I would carefully shoot small blasts of flame into the open mouth, and the envelope would gradually suck air in and fill.  It took patience, but it worked.  Over time I had several occasions to use this technique when my blower had failed to work.


I also tried a few techniques that were, well, not so useful.  I had read that some hot air balloonists in England had used trail ropes as they were used in gas balloons.  I got myself a 150-foot 1 ¼” trail rope and tried this out on landings.  This was not a good idea.  Another not so good idea was when I thought flying with sand ballast might be a good way to make a hot air balloon more maneuverable in competition.  This idea came from reading about sailplane

competition, where water ballast is carried to make the sailplane go faster when the lift is strong and the extra weight is therefore not a disadvantage.


The third arena of change in ballooning is the development and adoption of myriad ancillary devices.  Some of these already existed when I started ballooning, and some of them have been invented or developed since.  I was always looking for ways devices could enhance my flying in some way.  Of course, much of what I tried turned out not to be so useful.


When I began flying we did not have radios.  Communication with the retrieve vehicle was by yelling.  Early competition rules even allowed for dropping notes.  Dropping notes?!  I cannot remember ever having dropped a note from a balloon.  In the mid-1970s I got CB radios, which seemed extraordinarily intrusive, with all the “breaker, breaker” and “good buddy” jabbering being done by strangers who were

not our buddies at all.  This soon yielded to a hand held aircraft radio in the balloon and an installed radio in the retrieve truck – one that I had built from a kit to save money.  Of course, as we all now know, the business band radio is the hot setup, and for many years we were even licensed for these on several frequencies for the area within 50 miles of our home base.

In early international balloon competition radios were prohibited from being carried in the balloon.  This was inconvenient and in the case of an accident possibly dangerous, so in the 1981 World Hot Air Balloon Championship I carried a 20-watt megaphone to enhance the old yelling method, and I used this once when I needed to reposition my crew for what was going to be a marker drop in a parking area, where I feared the marker might become someone’s souvenir.  Subsequent to that championship I lobbied for that rule to be eliminated, and it soon was.


The mobile phone was not an option for the first several decades of my ballooning.  Around 1990 we got a “bag phone”, with a big battery pack with a cradle and handset on a cord.  This was both cumbersome and expensive, and only much later did the flip phones and really great smart phones appear.


I have made more than a few flights where I needed to talk with air traffic control, and thus did need to carry an aircraft radio.  The most entertaining of these was one morning when I just happened to fly 30 miles west from a takeoff in Ann Arbor to Jackson, Michigan.  When I realized I would be able to maneuver to the Jackson Airport I dialed up the appropriate frequency on my aircraft radio and waited until I was five miles from the airport.  I picked up the radio and casually announced, “Jackson Tower, free balloon November Eight Niner Charlie Bravo, five miles east, inbound, landing.”  Long pause.  “Calling aircraft, say your aircraft type please,” was the eventual reply.  We quickly got that sorted out, I was cleared to land, and I flew onward to the airport and landed near a taxiway and the VOR antenna.  That was fun.  Of course, I also did make quite a few flights that required a radar transponder and supplemental breathing oxygen (variously in both compressed gas and liquid state), but those are another story.

Over the years many devices have become available that can enhance ballooning.  My first balloon had a thermocouple to measure the temperature in the top of the envelope.  My second balloon had a “meat thermometer” with a 5-inch dial hanging in its top.  One needed to develop special techniques for reading this from 50 feet below.  Later, various thermistor based devices came along, first with a cable down to the basket and later with a radio link to eliminate the conductive cable and decrease the risk of shock if the envelope were to come into contact with power lines.  A pretty nifty device that never fully proved itself was a device I designed, built and flight tested for several years that continuously recorded the temperature of the balloon envelope in which it was installed.  The idea was to document the temperature history of the envelope for warranty purposes, but the batteries in the sealed device failed to live up to their published specs when regularly exposed to the higher temperatures in a balloon envelope.


Of course, knowing how fast a balloon is moving up or down or horizontally, and in what direction it is going can be most useful to its pilot.  Many balloons when I started flying had standard aircraft rate of climb instruments.  In that first balloon of mine I did have a nice Ball Model 100 electric variometer, which very quickly and accurately showed the rate of climb.  I got Richard Ball to make several special versions of this for me to use in competition, one of which had a full-scale reading of just 200 feet per minute.  This was especially valuable when flying a barograph competitive task and trying to stay in absolutely level flight.  Much later, electronic digital altimeters came along, reducing the cost, size, and weight of altimeters.


Although I did use a VOR receiver to determine our position during one world record flight, the much later creation of GPS gave balloonists an extraordinarily valuable navigational tool.  Now all one needs is a good smart phone to do GPS navigation in flight.


Knowing the speed and direction of the air below is especially important, if for no other reason than that every balloon flight ends up descending through that air to its final

landing place.  Watching the drift of spit as it fell was the original gold standard.  Like many, I later took to dropping globs of shaving cream, but my great invention was a modified marshmallow.  I had thought that dropping standard marshmallows would give a good indication of the wind below, but it turned out that marshmallows always spin end over end when they fall through the air and for that reason track somewhat sideways through the air, like a curve ball in baseball.   I quickly fell upon the solution to the sideways tracking.  The marshmallows just needed a rigid tail that would keep them with the flat sides horizontal.  A 5” piece of broom straw stuck through the central axis of the marshmallow did the trick.  For years I flew with a supply of these in a Tupperware container strapped into the end of my basket beneath the instruments.

I enjoyed balloon competition as part of my flying and I eventually got a WindReader that would calculate the wind speeds and direction of a pilot balloon tracked by the the operator who would keep the pibal in an attached scope’s crosshairs.  Later my friend and competition buddy Al Nels interfaced packet radios to the

WindReader and to notebook computers we carried in our baskets during competition.  My daughter Courtney on the ground tracked pibals through the Windreader's scope and the data was simultaneously transmitted and displayed on the computers.  This was towards the end of the years I was competing, and Al has since carried this far beyond what we began doing then.


The most amazing revelation of wind direction and speed I have ever seen did not involve electronics, but resulted from a downpour of heavy rain during a flight in the Pacific Championship in Saga, Japan one year.  In fact, it rained so hard that a couple thousand dollars worth of electronics in my basket were made dysfunctional by water pouring down the center of my balloon envelope off the parachute edges, and down the mouth cables from the outside of the envelope.  There had been no chance of thunderstorms, but apparently there had been an unforecast chance of heavy rain.  The gazillions of raindrops revealed the movement the air as they fell through it.  Other than the obvious inconvenience of the pouring rain, this was really cool!  Some people landed before reaching the Judge Declared Goal, but I realized that continuing on was safe and the balloon could not get any wetter than it already was, so I flew to the target, dropped my marker for 3rd place out of a hundred-plus competitors, and landed not far beyond.


Two other tools I used in competition were plumb lines around the outside of my basket to show what straight down was, and a drop sight to use to estimate when to drop a marker if I was caught out high approaching a target or goal.  An estimate of the average wind speed to the ground could be dialed in to this device and then when the target was aligned with the sights it was time to drop the marker.  This was not much use for normal sport ballooning, though.


I made some other stuff that does not have widespread use.  The first was an electronic interval timer to turn the burner on and off.  I did this is preparation for our world duration record flight – the first ever hot air balloon flight of more than a day’s duration.  Using this effectively became something of a challenge during the summer afternoon of that flight.  Trying to fly level in thermals, I was able only to stay between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above ground – not exactly level.  But it did keep me entertained.


Early on in my ballooning career Karl Stefan gave me a copy of his excellent mathematical description of hot air balloon performance theory.  Eventually this led me to the idea to build a balloon flight simulator, complete with blast switch, vent switch, altitude readout, and a rate of climb readout.  I thought this might become a tool for people to use to learn the feel of a hot air balloon in flight.  At the very least this was a fun toy.  Once the flight simulator was perfected, the next logical step seemed to be to design a balloon autopilot, the

purpose of which would be to keep a balloon at a constant altitude.  Eventually I connected the autopilot to the simulator and sat back and watched one “fly” the other. Eventually this turned out not to have been just play.  Years later many world records were set on the reliable autopilot I designed and built then, including Steve Fossett’s solo round-the-world flight, which put two of my autopilots in the National Space and Air Museum.  How cool is that?

In the context of ballooning I have a love-hate relationship with electronic devices, which I sometimes refer to as “electronic junk”.  My early experiences with ballooning were without any of this (well, almost), and I came to appreciate the utter simplicity of ballooning.  On the other hand, I am a closet techno-geek, and I did realize that some electronic devices can

dramatically expand the exciting experiences available in ballooning.


I have many beautiful memories from my years of ballooning adventures.  Unfortunately, at the beginning of my ballooning experience, only film photos and super-8 film video without sound existed, so I have almost no photographic record from those early decades.  I did record my thoughts during my later 645-mile Long Jump flight on a sound-actuated tape recorder, but neither GoPro cameras nor smart phones been invented until the later years of my balloon flying.


So ballooning has grown up a lot over these four or five decades.  Much of the adventure of the early days has been replaced by greater convenience and greater safety.  I feel blessed to have witnessed and participated in this growth.  Life is change, and I certainly have lived through a lot of that in the sport of ballooning.  And now, as my instructor Denny Floden said those many years ago, I am certifiably “one of the old men of ballooning”.

©2021 Bruce Comstock, all rights reserved.