GERING — Bright colored envelopes will float over the valley as hot air balloon pilots visit Scotts Bluff County for the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship Aug. 12-17.
Hot air ballooning is a popular event as it provides breathtaking views of balloons soaring over vast landscapes, but the difference in the competitive hot air ballooning is the competition aspect and the demand on the pilots. While the national competition is no more strenuous physically, pilots must have a knowledge, training and skills to complete specific tasks successfully.
Balloon competitions occur at the national, regional, international and world levels and follow the standard Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) rules that outline tasks pilots can complete and how judges determine the champion pilot.
As spectators make their way outside to see pilots navigate in their colorful balloons, they may see the national pilots complete several tasks while in the air.
“Balloons will be flying at different altitudes and diving down to score on the X or other target that is laid out on the ground,” said Colleen Johnson, event director.
When the pilots approach the targets, Johnson said spectators might see the balloons bump into each other, depending on how fast the winds are blowing. During their flights, the national balloonists can be called to do a certain number of tasks where they are awarded points for each task.
One of the tasks national pilots may complete is called a doughnut.
“So, you will not actually see a doughnut in the air,” Johnson said. “It is a longitude, latitude and altitude point in the sky.”
The balloonists are judged using a GPS logger of their virtual location to the targets. The logger is used to enter electronic marks during flight and helps the judges monitor pilots’ compliance with the rules like distance and altitude. The judges will review the flight on the computer to determine who flew closest to the marker or doughnut in the sky to determine who receives the most points.
Another task balloonists might complete is the angle task (ANG) where they attempt to achieve the greatest change of direction from a set direction. The change is measured in degrees between points A and B. If point A is the point of crossing the initial flight direction and B is the point when the pilot crosses the minimum distance from A, the result is the angle between the initial direction with the greatest angle as the best.
WATER SHIP DOWN
Spectators watching the nationals might also see a Water Ship Down (WSD) task. This two-part task will have pilots launch from a site and fly to a target. During flight, a Hare balloon (a random balloon marking the next target) will launch from an adjacent target. After dropping a marker onto the target location, they must fly to the Hare’s location to drop their second marker. This task is a combination of a Hare and Hounds task and a judge declared goal. The pilots can choose their launching points and the director will set the minimum distance between the launch point and the Hare. The Hare’s launching point is typically the first target goal and where the Hare lands is the second goal. When the pilots reach the location, they have to hit the target with a marker.
A typical marker is called a baggie. The baggie is a fancy bean bag weighing 2.5 ounces and a tail typically 3 feet long.
“If it is a calm morning, then they will just set the scoring device on the target,” Johnson said. “If it is quick or they are further away from the target, they could possibly do a wind-up throw. This is where they hold onto the tail of the baggie and wind up to throw it at the target.”
As spectators watch hot air balloons soar above the tree lines over Scotts Bluff County, another task they might complete is a minimum distance drop.
“One of the tasks could be a minimum distance drop where there are two giant triangles on the ground with the points facing each other,” said Johnson. “The pilots will have to throw a bean bag in each triangle. The one who scores by getting the closest to the tip of each triangle gets the most points. It can be very complicated.”
However, there is a penalty for touching the ground during the task.
The balloon fest will feature 72 pilots who will take to the sky, weather permitting. The national balloons may also fly in the afternoon of Aug. 12, 13 and 14 if weather conditions are appropriate.
There will be public viewing places announced every day after target locations have been chosen each morning. Visit the Star-Herald website at starherald.com for daily morning announcements about the viewing locations and happenings at the National Hot Air Balloon Championships.