Balloon lessons

Even though I am an aviation enthusiast and a private pilot I followed closely the famous Gordon Bennett balloon competition for the first time in my life. What an exciting race full of unexpected turnarounds this has been!

My interest was prompted by the fact that this time around Poland, i.e. the city of Torun, was hosting the event and after the first two days of flying one of the Polish crews (Poland -2) was leading with a large margin. After taking an early and brave move Pol-2 started shifting away from the rest of the pack going south-west in bad weather while most everybody else was going east or hovering somewhere in north-eastern Poland. Unfortunately the Pol-2 had to land in south-western Germany having covered almost 1000 km from the starting point.

While many other crews shared the fate of Pol-2 being forced to land their hydrogen-filled balloons either due to air traffic (ATC) restrictions, technical problems or reaching the border with Russia or Belorussia a few remained airborne. Among them was a French crew (Fra-2) and a Swiss one (Sui-2). With some great tactics, right altitude and favorable weather Fra-2 soon overtook Pol-2 in distance covered. Heading toward central France they seemed a clear favorite to win 2021 Gordon Bennett. Sui-2 was hundreds of kilometers away. Due to shortage of ballast and ATC restrictions Fra-2 had to land eventually heaving covered 1556 km while Sui-2 was still in the air. Yesterday after 85 hours of non-stop flight the Swiss team overtook Fra-2 and landed safely scoring 1560 km and winning this very exciting race.

The gas balloon racing turns out to be a very interesting and beautiful sport. It is too bad it receives so little coverage in the media and public interest. The official Gordon Bennett YouTube TV channel had only a few hundred daily views. So to fill this gap I would like to share a few observations and lessons I took from this race and this sport in general:

1. Sometimes the best strategy to win is restraining yourself from moving with everybody else. Just wait and see. Keep you options open. The urge to act these days is so strong that doing nothing, waiting, seems so unnatural and weird.

2. One of the critical success factors for the winning team was relying on their support center. They were composed of ATC specialists, meteorologists etc.
Teamwork is often used as a catchword in business and often misunderstood for something else such as group think or other team dysfunctions. Trusting the feedback from those support teams often headquartered far away from where the action was happening was essential for the crew who were executing the flight.

3. Piloting a gas balloon is both complicated and fairly straightforward. Two main control levers are the amount of ballast (sand bags) and amount of gas (hydrogen, helium) in the balloon. To increase altitude you get rid of ballast, to decrease it you release gas from the balloon.

Just like in life to get down to earth we need to let some steam off or sometimes even prick our ego-balloon. Conversely to move away from the early problems shedding some “life ballast” that anchors us is necessary.

4. Watching the closing interviews with various participating crews I was smiling seeing their joie de vivre. You could not just tell who the winner was. All participants were extremely happy to have landed safely respectful of their competitors exuding a great sense of humor, sportsmanship and camaraderie. What a refreshing perspective far from our polarized world!

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