This is where the actual crewing (work) begins. It is also where the responsibility begins. Crewing is work. It is also responsibility. You will recognize the work easily. That is what is going to make you perspire. The responsibility is something else and I will point out many of your responsibilities as we go along.
The first thing you do when you arrive at the launch site is wait for instructions from your pilot. The pilot is the one person with the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the passengers and crew. The pilot should give every crew member specific instructions on what task he or she expects of the crew member during the off loading, inflation and launch. Giving crew instructions is one of the things the pilot learned during training. It is also one of the things that is often taken for granted, especially when the crew is experienced. Since this is your first time out the pilot should give you specific instructions on what task is expected of you during the launch. In some cases the pilot may delegate this instruction to the crew chief, however, that should be made clear to you by the pilot before the inflation begins.
The crew chief is usually a long time crew person who has had a lot of experience. This person has the added responsibility of taking charge when the pilot is not on the scene or busy with other matters. In many instances the crew chief is experienced enough to handle crew instruction, rigging the balloon assembly, burner check and cold inflation. You will find many student pilots acting as crew chief and this is usually part of their ground school training.
The pilot's first task upon arriving at the selected launch site is to pick a location in the field from which he or she wishes to launch. Factors included in this decision will include wind speed and direction, terrain, powerlines in the vicinity and other balloons that might be using the same launch site. Once the pilot has chosen the spot and parked the chase vehicle for off loading the first thing our crew people do is walk the area of the field where the envelope (fabric part of the balloon) will be laid out on the ground. This is done to assure that there are no sharp objects on the ground that could damage the envelope during inflation. If anything is found it can be moved to the edge of the field where it will be out of way, not only from your balloon, but from other balloons in the same field. If we find trash such as soft drink cans or other debris we usually pick it up and put it in the chase vehicle for disposal after the flight. Our mission is not just to protect the balloon but to leave the site in better shape than it was when we arrived. This goes a long way in helping with landowner relations that you will continue to hear about during this series of articles.
After the chase vehicle is situated for off loading the pilot should brief the crew on their specific tasks. The first thing that should be determined is who will be driving chase. Once that person is determined the pilot should pass possession of the chase vehicle keys to the driver. I know it sounds silly, but there are very few pilots out there who have not flown off with keys to the chase vehicle in their pocket. It is not always the new pilots who fly off with he keys. Last year at a large balloon race I attended in Oklahoma a pilot with over 20 years of experience and the Balloonmeister for the event took off with the keys in his pocket. This is one of the most embarrassing things a pilot can do. If and when you are designated as the driver get the keys!
After making certain the site is clear of debris and the designated driver has the keys the balloon is off loaded. The basket is placed in position with the envelope bag placed downwind. The envelope bag should be carried, not dragged. Dragging the envelope bag results in holes being worn in the bag, and it is not a good idea unless you happen to own a company that sells envelope bags. Usually the first task after off loading is to set up the uprights which support the burner. Some of the older balloons do not have burner supports and the burner plate is attached to the basket and envelope with cables. There are not very many of these balloons around any more so I am not going to go into much detail on these relics. After the burner supports are up and the burner assembly is attached many pilots do a burner check. This is done before attaching the envelope and is to assure good fuel flow, proper function of the pilot lights and a good blast of flame from main burner. This is not a mandatory test and it is not even possible on some balloons due to the individual design of the manufacturer, however, most pilots perform a burner check before every flight. After this test the pilot light and fuel source are turned off and the basket is tipped on its side for assembly with the he envelope.
A word of caution here. Sometimes you will find a pilot that does not turn the fuel system off after the burner test. This can be very dangerous! Once the basket is tipped onto its side for assembly with the envelope the burner controls are down where even a small child could reach them. If the system is still charged and the pilot light is still on this could result in serious injury or damage if the controls are activated. If your pilot is one who leaves the system on and charged, please encourage him or her to shut it down for safety reasons.
The basket is now tipped onto its side and readied for envelope attachment. Usually the first thing out of the bag is the vent line and then the skirt or scoop. Some balloons have a skirt that is a full circle of material that attaches to the bottom of the balloon and which has a steel band at the bottom to hold it open. The steel band is coiled up in the bag and when taken out it opens up into a full circle about eight to ten feet in diameter. Other balloons have a scoop that also attaches to the bottom of the balloon, but only goes about third to half of the way around the bottom of the balloon. The scoop does not have a metal band at the bottom and it attaches to the burner assembly on the bottom side during inflation.
The cables or lines that attach the balloon to the basket and burner assembly are normally attached by the pilot or crew chief. If the pilot does not do the actually connection he or she will check the assembly to make certain that it has been done correctly. Once the envelope is attached it is time to remove the rest of the envelope from the bag. This is generally accomplished by picking up the bag and carrying it in a downwind direction. This allows the envelope to spill out behind you until it is completely out of the storage bag. This task is normally accomplished with at least two crew persons due to the weight of the envelope and bag. At the very top of the balloon you will fine another long rope attached to the crown ring of the balloon. The crown ring is the very top of the balloon where the load tapes or ropes all connect. The crown line is usually coiled and packed at the top of the balloon. On my balloon we have a separate suede bag in which we store the crown line. This line often gets wet in the dew on the ground during morning flights. Often the line does not dry by the time we are repacking so we store the crown line in its own bag to keep it from transferring moisture to the balloon fabric. The crown line is stretched out in a downwind direction taking care to untangle or unknot it as you lay it out. The function of the crown line can be hampered if it is not free of tangles and knots.
Once the balloon is stretched out on the ground you must be certain that you do not step on the envelope. Stepping on the envelope can cause tears and abrasions to the fabric and this damage is costly to repair. It is also the responsibility of the crew to keep any spectators from stepping on or over the envelope. It is also a good idea to keep your eye open for any dogs that may be in the area. Unleashed dogs will almost always try to "mark" the basket and I have seen them run up inside a partially inflated envelope. Keeping spectators and animals away from the balloon is a crew responsibility.
Usually the last thing removed from the chase vehicle is the fan. Fan placement is
up to the individual preference of the pilot. This will be discussed in detail in a future
course. You are now ready to inflate the envelope. The pilot will assign each crew
person his or her job for the actual inflation. The normal positions for crew people
during inflation are:
In years past we often saw two people working side handling lines. These were lines about half way up the envelope and they were used to steady the envelope during windy inflations. I have not seen any of these in several years, but I am sure there are some out there. Also, we used to put several people on the basket to keep it from dragging during a high wind inflation. Today almost everyone uses a quick release system that attaches the basket to the rear end of the chase vehicle. This line holds the balloon back during a windy inflation. Each of the positions will be covered in detail in subsequent courses.
One last note about the launch site. Leave it as you found it, or maybe better than it was when you arrived. Do not leave any trash or debris behind. The only acceptable thing you can leave behind is foot prints. If you had to open a gate or fence to get into the field make sure it is closed when you exit the field.
Note: Please send comments or suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Box 830011, Richardson, Texas 75083.
Feedback: I received some feedback from a crew person from Virginia taking me to task for suggesting that T-shirts and sneakers were acceptable attire. He suggested long shirts and boots if not steel toed boots. Maybe you have brambles and bushes in Virginia, but I fly in Texas where it often in the high 90's and while I do strongly suggest long pants, T-shirts are certainly acceptable. Also, the area of Texas I fly in is so flat you can watch your dog run away for 3 days. We do not have hills and rocky landing places requiring high top boots. If your flying terrain is rocky and hilly maybe boots are a good idea. The best thing to remember when crewing is good common sense. Dress for the conditions you are apt to find in your area.