1992 Balloon Drop Seminar

article and photos © John Heiney

Howard Mitchel lifts off under a balloon piloted by Art Prior as Jeff Dunn watches

This summer I conducted a balloon drop seminar for four Southern California pilots. Joe-Bill Henry had introduced me to balloon pilot Art Prior, but when the class came together Joe-Bill was out of town and unable to attend. Art had done a hang glider launch once before and was eager to participate for the experience.

We met at Perris at 6:AM. Balloonists are early risers (no pun intended). I felt that if the wind was light, all four pilots could fly on one inflation of the hot air balloon. I set up an XTR 145, the aluminum frame high performance recreational class glider from UP. All four pilots were about to take their first flight on this new glider.

Jeff Dunn was the most enthusiastic and first in line. Jeff wanted to go to 10,000 feet, but I wanted everyone to get a flight. Art took him to about 3600 feet AGL. After the comfortable descent rate was attained Jeff released, and despite his urge to wang it in the smooth morning air Jeff conserved altitude while Art set down in a nearby open field.

As Art's basket touched down, Jeff pulled off some good looking rad wingovers and landed fifty feet from the balloon. R.C. Dave was suited-up and ready to hook in as Jeff unhooked. I reconnected the lifting rope to the glider, did the safety checks, and minutes after Jeff landed, Dave's feet gently departed the ground.

Art elevated Dave to about 2800 feet and freed him to explore the aerobatic characteristics of the XTR. The wind remained very light and Dave made his landing next to the balloon less than a mile from LZ #1. All the pilots looked somewhat tense to be hanging from a glider that was not flying, yet slowly pulling away from the surface. This is a normal reaction to an odd feeling situation.

Next it was Ray Vermeulen's turn. Ray's experience was a good lesson for all. Something happened that I had not considered. As Art lifted off and Ray started to back under the balloon, conditions caused the balloon to ascend faster than was safe. It was getting late and the air was becoming thermally active.

Art called for people to "ballast" onto the balloon. The person who was tending the lifting rope dropped it and grabbed the balloon line. The balloon and glider continued to lift off anyway, but the untended lifting rope wrapped around the end of the keel. Ray was going up fast in a nearly vertical, nose down attitude, which is not a bad configuration for release, however awkward during the ride to altitude. But I was concerned that the release might not function.

I asked Art to set Ray back on the ground, and he did it quickly and masterfully. I unwrapped the lifting rope, checked the release, and Ray was up and away to his first balloon drop after two lift-offs. This incident re-affirms the need for a rope tender.

All else went very smoothly. Art did a great job of choosing suitable hang glider landing areas for his touchdown sites. When Ray arrived in LZ #3, it was finally Howard Mitchell’s turn to do a "sky hook" sled run. Howard's release was uneventful yet thrilling. He chose to land back at LZ #1, while Art floated on to a satisfactory envelope folding area.

The day was a positive experience for all involved, and proves that his method can be used to teach balloon launching to a group.

Published in November 1992 HANG GLIDING Magazine