competition ballooning
British Balloon And Airship Club (BBAC)

the theory

The basic principle behind all balloon competitions is accuracy flying - the ability of the pilots to fly their aircraft to where they want to be, not to just go where they are taken.

Balloons cannot be steered.  They are at the mercy of the atmosphere and all will travel at the pace of the wind.  However the speed and direction of the wind is not fixed.  At different heights the wind will be blowing at different speeds and directions.  Pilots therefore effectively can steer their craft by altering their height to move into the appropriate airstream.  A balloons height can be controlled very accurately, so even though some of the changes with height are very small and subtle, the skilled pilot can still make use of them.

This ability of the pilot to regain some control over his speed and direction is fundamental to modern day ballooning.  On a grand scale, it allowed Brian Jones and Bertrand Picard to find the right winds to circumnavigate the globe.  In everyday pleasure flying it allows the pilot to carefully choose his landing field to ensure a safe and trouble free landing.  And in competition ballooning it means that pilots can pass over a point to within a few metres after a flight of several kilometres.

In the Northern hemisphere the wind will usually veer to the right and increase speed with increasing height. Therefore at it's simplest, a target may be chosen downwind of the launch site and the pilot flies towards it; climbing to turn right, descending to regain the left, until the target is reached.  Once over the target, a marker is thrown to record the balloons position.

In the early days of competition, results came by measuring where a balloon landed, but as pilots became more skilled, too many were trying to land at the same spot, so nowadays balloons do not land on or near the goal itself.  Markers are used instead. These are weighted streamers made of balloon fabric thrown at the target.  Once these were introduced, it became possible to have multi-task flights.

A competition will consist of a number of tasks which have to be flown, most being variations on the theme outlined above.  More than one task may be flown on each flight, depending on the conditions.  Each task is scored separately and the points awarded for each task are totalled to give an overall score.  The winner is thus the pilot who has amassed the highest overall score at the end of the competition.  As many flights and tasks as possible will be flown during the course of a competition to try and even out the elements of luck.

The principles, then, are simple.  The practice, however, is a little more complicated.

the practice

In many respects, a competitive event is very much like any leisure flying at a balloon meet.  The equipment is generally the same; the conditions when you can fly are the same, although because of their higher skill levels competition pilots will sometimes fly in slightly faster conditions than less experienced pilots.  Most important, safety considerations remain paramount.  Generally, though, you are unlikely to see any special shape balloons (conventional shape balloons are best for competition), and there are unlikely to be any balloons tethering during the day - the pilots are getting some well earned rest!

There are several different tasks which may be set (some of which are given below).  One of the skills of the competition director is knowing which tasks to set depending on the prevailing weather conditions.  The simple high right, low left principle does not always hold true, the change of direction available may be very small or very large, it may change gently or abruptly (e.g. at an inversion), there may be anabatic or katabatic flows, sea breezes and a whole host of other local effects to confuse the issue.

Thus, each competition flight starts with a briefing, where the pilots discover which tasks have been set and receive all the relevant met and task data, including time and distance limits, etc.  If conditions allow, the director will usually try to set more than one task on a flight; four tasks per flight has tended to be a practical maximum and this has only been achieved a couple of times in the UK.  The more tasks to be done on a flight, the more challenging it becomes and helps ensure a better competition.  The more tasks overall ensure that it takes consistent performance to reach the title.

Having discovered what the tasks are, the pilots consider their strategy whilst preparing the balloons for the flight.  Some flights will not require much planning, save determining what the wind is doing at different heights; other multi-task flights may need a lot of thought as to the best way to fly them.  Getting it wrong on the first task may mean ruining the subsequent tasks as well.

There will be a set launch period which the balloons must take off in, to ensure that all balloons are starting with the same opportunity.  Even within this short period, however, strategy can be important.  Is it better to take off straight away before the met conditions change, or perhaps wait until a changing pattern stabilises as with an evening sea breeze?  Waiting also allows a pilot to see how the early balloons fare - though often everyone wants to wait and nobody wants to take off first!

During the flight itself, the workload is often still high.  As well as trying to find the right winds, the pilot may have to work out co-ordinates for the next goal, keep a sharp eye out for other balloons in a crowded sky and still maintain very precise control of the balloon at all times.

Once at the goal, very accurate flying control is needed.  The markers used are nylon streamers weighted with small (70 grams) sandbags.  They will travel with the wind, and so, if released from height, may cross two fields before landing. Therefore, to ensure a good drop the balloon should ideally be brought in as low as possible over the goal.  This means that the approach has to be just right, since there will often be a marked change of direction in the winds near the surface.  However, the standard of competition pilots is now very good, and results of centimetres from the goal after flights of several kilometres are not unusual.  Indeed in competitions where markers may be thrown rather than just dropped, the pilots ability to throw straight becomes a very important factor.  Alternatively, it can sometimes be beneficial to sacrifice distance in favour of dropping the marker where it can definitely be found.  A lost marker can mean no score.

Once the flight is over the markers still have to be found and measured.  This can also take time and can make for a long hard morning, leaving little time for refuelling, rest and refreshment before it is time to start again in the afternoon.

the people

It takes many people to run a competition. Some of the more important roles include the following.

Competition Director.  The director is in charge of all the competitive elements of the event.  He or she sets all the tasks, runs the briefings and oversees the scoring and the results.

Observers.  For each task, an independent observer is appointed to a balloon team and joins the retrieve crew on the ground, or the pilot in the basket, to see fair play.  It is the duty of the observer to record impartially particulars of positions, times, distances etc. achieved during tasks, and to report any apparent infringement of the rules and any cases of inconsiderate behaviour towards landowners or the public by any competitor or crew member. 

The Jury.  In the case of protests a jury of three persons is required.  For major international competitions, the CIA has recently instituted a jury selection procedure and a list of approved jurors.  They are appointed at the start of the competition and are completely independent.  For smaller national competitions, the jury is often selected, only when required, by random selection from amongst the competing pilots.

Safety Officer.  For major international events a safety officer, directly responsible to the CIA is appointed.

the tasks

The following is a list of some of the more common tasks which may be flown at balloon competitions.

Judge-declared goal - The competition director sets a target several miles downwind of the launch site. The balloonists have to use the winds available to fly to and over the target, to drop a marker as close as they can. The target is usually a remote cross-roads or junction.

Pilot-declared goal - Instead of the competition director choosing the target, the pilot does. Targets have to be chosen within certain distance limits from the launch site. The pilot has to declare the goal before launching and will not know where other pilots have chosen theirs.

Hesitation waltz - Similar to the judge-declared goal except that there are two or more targets. The pilot only has to fly to one target and can choose which one while in flight.

Fly-in task - The launch field becomes the goal and the pilots are dispatched to take-off from a launch point of their choice a minimum distance away. A large target is laid out on the launch field. Pilots may be allowed to make more than one attempt.

Fly-on task - Usually combined with one of the above tasks, the pilot chooses a second goal in flight and notes its grid reference on the marker they drop on the first target. They then fly on to this predetermined point and drop a second marker to score.

Elbow - This task involves changing course as greatly as possible. Balloons fly out for a specified minimum distance, for example three miles, the pilot drops a marker to indicate their position and then flies the second leg, attempting to change course as much as possible before dropping the final marker.

Hare and Hounds - The hare, a non-competitive balloon, launches 10 to 15 minutes before the competing balloons, the hounds. The hare tries to outwit the hounds with altitude changes that take them in various directions. The hounds do not have to copy the flight pattern, but must finally drop a marker as close to the hare's landing spot as possible.

Watership Down - A combination of fly-in and Hare and Hounds. The pilots have to launch from a site remote to the launch point. The idea is to time a fly-in to the launch point such that a hare balloon launching from the launch point at a pre-set time is then followed in a conventional Hare and Hounds task.

Gordon Bennett Memorial - A target is identified for this task which is outside of a scoring area. The pilot has to drop the marker as near as possible to the goal but inside the scoring area. Markers dropping outside the scoring area, even if closest to the target, do not score.

Maximum distance - For this task, pilots fly as far as they can within a defined scoring area and sometimes within a certain time period. Pilots who do not drop their marker within the scoring area do not achieve a result.

Minimum distance - This task involves the competitors flying the minimum distance possible. Pilots must not drop their markers until after a given time period. A target laid out on the launch field is the goal.

Calculated rate approach task - Goals are set within scoring areas and each scoring area has a unique time of validity. Successful completion of this task relies on the pilot's accurate assessment of the wind speed. If the pilot does not launch at the correct time they may not reach the scoring area during its period of validity. Markers dropped inside the scoring area when it is closed do not score.

the rules

Each competition follows a strict set of rules, published beforehand. These will be based for the most part on the 'Uniform Model Rules', which are promoted by the CIA (International Ballooning Commission). There is a standing sub-committee within the CIA which deals with rules in an effort to reach international standardisation.


The winner of each task is awarded 1000 points, the median 500 points and the remainder receive points proportional to their relative positions. Thus if a pilot comes a very close second in a particular task, with the rest of the field a long way behind, then that pilot will receive a score close to 1000 points. This means that it is not necessary to win many tasks, a good overall score can be gained by doing quite well consistently. Penalty points can be awarded for rule infringements etc. Points are accumulated over the course of the event and the competition winner is the pilot who has amassed the highest score.


The premier event is of course the World Championships. This is held every two years and countries may bid for the right to stage it. The next Worlds will be held in 2002 in France. There is usually 100 entrants from all corners of the globe; in the 1991 Worlds in Canada, 27 countries were represented.

In the years between the World Championships there is a European Championship. Which in 1998 was held in Sweden with 77 entrants. With many former Communist states gaining independence, the number of nations eligible for entry into the Europeans is growing all the time.

In 1997 Turkey hosted the first World Air Games. This event took several years to come to fruition and encompassed a number of aviation sports including gliding, parachuting, acrobatics, paragliding as well as hot air ballooning. The second World Air Games took place in Spain in 200 and will continue to be held every four year (rather along the same lines as the Olympic Games).

Selection of pilots for entry into these events is done by the individual countries themselves. Most will be as a result of National Championships results and the standards of flying here are very high and the competition tough. The number of places offered to each country for an International Championship is now partly dependant on results in a previous similar event, therefore, the better a country does the more places it is subsequently offered.