Congested Areas

Making an approach in a congested area, and subsequently discovering the site to be impossible or inappropriate, is another example of possibly being falsely accused of low flying. There are some inconsiderate pilots who fly too low in congested areas without reason, but they are rare. Every pilot will have an aborted landing situation occasionally. According to 14 CFR part 91, section 91.119 you may fly closer to the ground than the minimum altitude, if necessary for landing. For example, during your approach, the balloon turns away from the obviously preferred landing site, but there is another possible site only one-half mile in the proper direction. You have two choices: (1) go back up to a legal altitude and try again, or (2) stay low, in the wind you are sure will carry you to a good site, and try to make the second landing site.

In making the first choice, you could be accused of intentionally flying too low. However, with the second choice, you will fly lower for a longer period of time, which might appear to be a violation of the minimum altitude regulation. This is not an argument in favor of either technique. Many pilots prefer the second choice on the “once you go down to land, you had better land” theory.

Landing Techniques

Landing is probably the most demanding maneuver in ballooning. You must visualize your landing. Imagine the path through the air and across the ground. Look for obstacles, especially powerlines, near the imagined track. Note surface wind velocity and direction by looking for smoke, dust, flags, moving trees, and anything else that indicates wind direction. Do not be influenced too much by a wind indicator at a distance from the proposed site if there is a good indicator closer.

Visualize the descent to the site. For example, imagine you are flying level at 700 feet above ground level (AGL) and it is time to land. Checking the fuel, you have 30 percent remaining in two 20-gallon tanks. Your track across the ground is toward the southeast, but you observe a farmer’s tractor making a column of dust that is traveling nearly due east. The dust cloud rises from the ground at about a 45° angle. From this information you can guess that the balloon will turn left as it descends. This means you are looking to the left of the line the balloon now travels. By dropping small tissue balls, you determine that the wind changes about halfway to the ground and continues to turn left about 45°. Visualize your descent being no faster than about 500 FPM initially and slowing to about 300 FPM about 400 feet AGL where you expect the turn will start. Because the balloon will lose some lift from the cooling effect of the wind direction change, plan on closely monitoring your descent during the turn.

With this imagined descent in mind, search for an appropriate landing site. The next fallow field to the left of your present path is blocked by tall powerlines. You reject the site.

The next field that seems appropriate is an unfenced grain stubble field bordered by dirt roads with a 30 foot-high powerline turning along the west side, to the left and parallel to your present track. You must cross over the powerlines to reach your proposed landing field. Under the powerlines is a paved road, with a row-crop of sugar beets to the right and directly in your present path.

You select as your landing target the intersection of the two dirt roads at the southeast corner of the field. Your planned path would be across the field diagonally giving the greatest distance from the powerlines. Extending the final approach line back over the powerlines and into the sugar beet field, select a target for your surface wind turn. Next, set the spot where you will begin the initial descent.

Now, reverse the procedure and perform the descent, turn, and landing that you visualized. If all goes as visualized, allow the balloon to cool and accelerate to about 500 FPM. Apply some heat to arrest the descent as you approach your imagined turning point over the beets; level off (or maybe actually climb a bit) as you cross over the powerlines (about 200 feet above them); allow the balloon to cool again as you set up another descent across the stubble field. Due to the 7 miles per hour (MPH) estimated wind, allow the basket to touch down about 150 feet out from the dirt road intersection to lose some momentum as the basket bounces and skids over to the road, just where you planned.

Imagine now, how the landing might have occurred not knowing the surface wind was different from the flightpath. Maybe the less considerate pilot would plan on landing in the beets. Maybe the crop will not be hurt and the farmer will not care. Unfortunately, the balloon turns unexpectedly toward the powerlines, causing the pilot to make several burns of undetermined amount, setting up a climb that prevents the pilot from landing on the dirt road. The road is right in line with the balloon’s track, but disappearing behind the balloon. Another good landing site becomes unusable because of the lack of planning.

The thoughtful pilot makes a nice landing on a dirt road with 25 percent fuel remaining, while the unprepared pilot dives, turns, climbs, and is now back at 600 feet in the air looking for another landing site. For the next attempt, the pilot will have less fuel and be under more pressure, all because of not noticing the powerlines to the left and not checking the wind on the ground before making the descent. The first pilot visualized a plan, executed the plan, and is safely on the ground while the second pilot is saying, “Well, let’s go down again and see what happens.”

Do not have a “let’s see what happens” attitude. Have a plan.

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