Contour Flying Techniques

Aside from the legal aspects, contour flying is probably the most difficult flying to perform. Since most contour flying is done in unpopulated areas, the balloon is rarely higher than 500 feet AGL, and therefore the balloon's flight instruments are seldom observed. Because mechanical instruments have several seconds lag, and electronic instruments are very sensitive, pilots must rely on their observation and judgment. Regardless of the type of instruments in the balloon basket, the human eye is by far the best gauge when operating close to the ground.

When flying at low altitude, the pilot must be vigilant for obstacles, especially powerlines and traffic, and not rely solely on instruments inside the basket. The pilot should always face the direction of travel, especially at low altitude. The pilot's feet, hips, and shoulders should be facing forward. The pilot should turn only his or her head from side to side (not the entire body) to gauge altitude and to detect or confirm climbs and descents. Facing forward cannot be overemphasized. There are many National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FAA accident reports describing balloon contacts with ground obstacles because the pilot was looking in another direction.

Contour flying may require shorter burns than the standard burn. To fly at low altitudes requires half or quarter burns. One disadvantage in using small pops is you can lose track of the heat you are making and become very noisy. Precise altitude control requires special burner technique. Another hazard of a series of too-small burns is that added heat becomes cumulative and you add heat before you have evaluated the effects of the last burn. The balloon actually responds to a burn 10 to 20 seconds after the burner is used. The choo-choo method of blast valve use adds heat before you know the effect of previous burns, is an annoying sound, and makes the pilot appear undecided.

Contour flying is a complex operation. You must see all obstacles on or near the balloon path, and remember their location. You must estimate the terrain or obstacle height, and always be prepared for an unexpected situation. You must establish a relationship between the balloon attitude and the terrain or obstacle height. An estimate must be made of the delay between the time you command the balloon to perform and the time you want the balloon to fly the selected flight profile. Be prepared to adjust your estimates. All these mental calculations must occur in a few seconds, over and over again, as you fly a complicated flight profile.

One technique to determine if the balloon is ascending, flying level, or descending is to compare two nottoo- distant objects at the side of the balloon path. If you look directly ahead, or forward and down, objects on the ground are getting larger as you approach them and you tend to think you are descending. Just the opposite may occur if you look at the ground to the rear of the balloon. As you see objects getting smaller as they move away from you, you may think you are climbing. While you want to maintain vigilance looking ahead in the direction of flight, you must still scan as much as 45'° to either side and avoid the possible distortion of looking straight ahead.

What you look for is two objects some distance from the balloon and some distance from each other in a straight line. By comparing the relative movement, you can tell if the balloon is ascending or descending. If the nearer object seems to be getting taller in relation to the far object, you are descending. Conversely, if the farther object seems to be getting taller when compared to the near object, you are ascending.

Some favorite sighting objects are a power pole as the near object and the line of a road, field, or orchard as the far object, because you can observe the line moving up or down the pole. Water towers with checkerboard or striped markings are also good sighting objects. Remember that vigilance is required to constantly scan the terrain along your path, and you must be alert to avoid becoming fixated on your sighting objects. Look where you are flying.

Some Disadvantages and Bad Practices

The line between contour flying and unsafe, inconsiderate, and misunderstood practices can sometimes be very fine.

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