Depending upon wind conditions the launch can be an easy going event or an action packed choreographed operation. In near calm conditions the launch is not hurried. The passengers have time to leisurely climb into the basket, take pictures, talk to the people around the basket and generally take it easy.
In windy conditions it is another matter altogether. In windy conditions once the balloon is hot inflated it is very difficult to hold it down on the ground. It is like an unruly child; it wants to go and you cannot do much to stop it once its mind is made up. Prior to an inflation in these conditions the pilot will have briefed the passengers to stay very close to the basket once the hot inflation starts. If they are off taking pictures, talking to someone or in the bushes taking care of business there is a good chance they are going to miss their flight. In windy conditions, once the balloon is hot inflated, the danger factor multiplies quickly.
I certainly don't recommend it, but I have dragged my van 10 to 20 feet before activating my quick release. When the pilot begins the hot inflation the passengers should be standing very close to the basket on the opposite side from the fan. Once the balloon starts coming up the pilot will call for the passengers to climb into the basket. If a passenger is having trouble getting in the crew person nearest the basket can assist. There is really no dainty way to get into a balloon basket. Feet first, head first or fanny first, whatever gets the job done. After the passengers are aboard the crew should clear any spectators away from the area downwind of the basket. They could be in danger if the wind should suddenly pick up speed. It is very bad for ballooning public relations to have spectators mowed down by a basket during a launch.
Once the balloon is cold inflated in windy conditions it is subject to the Bernoulli Effect. Balloonists call this "false lift." Air moving across a round surface like an airplane wing or the top of a balloon causes lift. We call this "false lift" because as soon as the balloon is released and starts picking up speed to equal the wind speed the lift goes away. An unwary pilot will come crashing down because the false lift is gone and there is not enough heat in the balloon to keep it in the air. In order to overcome false lift the balloon must be kept on the ground until it has enough heat to fly on its own. Even though I use a quick release, my crew holds the balloon on the ground by placing their weight on the basket.
A word of caution here: If you are holding the balloon down by placing weight on the basket DO NOT put your foot into a basket step or a carrying handle. This can be very dangerous because you could easily be carried aloft when the balloon launches. It is windy, false lift is affecting the balloon and the pilot has heated the balloon to a point where he knows it will ascend when released. The "weigh off" command is given, the balloon starts ascending quickly and there you are caught on the outside of the basket with your foot stuck in a handle. The fall won't kill you, but the sudden stop at the end is usually fatal. One of the first things I teach a new crew person is that "your feet never leave the ground." As soon as they feel themselves leave the ground they are told to let go immediately, and as they let go they need to shout something to alert me that they have dropped off the basket. I'll probably know it anyway, but it helps to hear the warning.
Methods of weigh off differ depending upon the pilot and the conditions. Sometimes the pilot will instruct one person at a time to weigh off the basket so that equilibrium can be gauged and to help determine if there is enough heat in the balloon to fly. Sometimes, when a pilot is sure that there is enough heat in the balloon to fly, everyone will be instructed to weigh off at the same time. Some balloon flight manuals describe a "running launch" for windy conditions. Once the pilot and passengers are aboard the balloon is allowed to move with the crew walking and then running alongside holding on to the basket. This is a good way to control false lift as the crew is right with the basket while the pilot continues to pour on the heat until the balloon has its own lift. The running launch takes a lot of practice and time to perfect. It should not be attempted by a novice crew.
When I first started flying there were no inflation harnesses or quick releases. During the cold inflation we often had 4-5 people holding the basket to keep the system from being dragged downwind. I always said that if we could not hold the basket with people we shouldn't be flying. Then some intelligent individual came along with the idea for an inflation harness or quick release. This is a strong rope or strap that attaches to the balloon with the other end being attached to your vehicle, a tree or some other handy tie down. Between the balloon and the tie off point there is some form of quick release. There are many different types of quick releases. I got mine from an industrial marine supplier and it has been tested to four thousand pounds. This may be a little overkill but at least I know it will hold if I get caught by a big gust of wind when inflating. I tie off to my Chevy Van and have a rule that if the balloon drags the van ten feet or more I quit. I confess that this rule was not an original idea of mine. I heard it from a very experienced competitive pilot who has won the Nationals a time or two.
If the pilot ties off to a trailer, no matter how large, it might be a good idea to look for a new pilot for your next crewing experience. A trailer simply is not heavy enough to hold back a balloon in windy conditions.
Once the balloon is hot inflated and has enough heat to overcome any false lift the quick release is activated and the balloon lifts off and floats away. There is, however, one very serious drawback to using this method of launching a balloon. When the quick release device is activated the length of rope attached to the stationary object flies back with great force. If a creWell, the balloon is launched and you are rushing to the chase vehicle to start following. OOPS, did you leave anything behind in the launch field?
As I stated at the beginning of this series, the descriptions of how to crew are from my personal experience; how I was taught and how I teach crewing. Your pilot's experiences may be different and thus you may receive different instructions. Because they differ does not mean they are wrong. Just use common sense and be safe. As always, please forward comments or suggestions to me at P. O. Box 830011, Richardson, Texas 75083 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. (New E-mail address.)