Competitive ballooning

The world of hot air balloon competitions

When you think of hot air ballooning, probably the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a calm and peaceful activity with scenic views. However hot air balloon racing is a rather complex and trying sport. Although this is not physically understood, professional ballooning requires a wealth of knowledge, prior training, hard work, and sophisticated skills. Competitions are held at national, regional, international and global levels. The competitions are conducted according to the rules laid down by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which determine the types of tasks that can be announced during the competition and the parameters on the basis of which the winning pilot will be announced at the end of the tournament.


Hot air balloon races last for several days. Usually two flights are scheduled for one day: one for the early morning and one for the evening. Each flight consists of a minimum of one and a maximum of 6-7 tasks selected by the event directior prior to take-off based on weather conditions and other factors. Since there are multiple tasks within one fligt, the basic goal of racing flights is not to reach the fastest flight, maximum distance, or altitude, as in other sports in general (however, each task may have a similar goal). Tasks usually require pilots to take advantage of the fine maneuverability of hot air balloons. Depending on the type of task, the task descriptions may specify precise objectives, scoring areas, different time and distance limits that the pilot must take into consideration when planning the flight and performing the tasks.

Flight planning

Good results in competitive tasks can be achieved with the best combination of flight planning and execution. This begins with choosing the right takeoff location, then continues with the proper measurement and evaluation of wind at different altitudes and the choice of possible own goal locations. Lastly, you need excellent balloon control and – like most sports – a little luck too. Pilots try to catch the right direction and speed of wind current as they ascend and descend in flight, taking them as close to the target as possible. However, the balloons do not land at the target itself, as the pilot’s only task is to throw the so-called marker as close to the target as possible, which is a small sandbag with a tape attached to it. The result will be the distance between the marker and the center of the target. During the evaluation of the task, the pilot whose marker lands closest to the target receives the highest score.

Important Factors in Competitions

Catching the wind
There is no direct mechanical means of controlling lateral movement for a hot air balloon, but a change in direction can be achieved by utilizing the wind currents at hand. Sometimes, at different altitudes, the wind will vary in general directions. By climbing or descending into these layers of air, the pilot is able to manoeuvre the balloon onto a preferred line of travel. Pilots must accurately gauge the speed, direction, and strength of the winds before the flight, and be able to predict changes during the flight.

Orientation in space
Spatial awareness and perception are the key to success once you are airborne. The pilots must have a good understanding of the competition area based on the rules of the competition: they have to be aware of their position in the air at every single moment, the position of their target in the area; where other balloons are and where they are heading; and what areas they should avoid regarding the flight regulations or competition rules. The basis for orientation is a topographic map that the pilot has traditionally in a hard copy, but most pilots also make use of navigation software, satellite navigation (GPS) and tablets.

There is only one person in command of the hot air balloons, but teamwork is an indispensable part of the competition. The ground crew helps pilot prepare for the flight and after the flight is completed. They help with instruments and equipment needed for the flight. They follow the balloon giving the pilot accurate information about weather conditions, which could be crucial for his success. The communication runs via radio or mobile phone. Quite often at international competitions the competitors from the same country help each other exchange information during the flight, prepare the tactics and flights together and thus try to gain some advantage over the other competitors.

Self-Control and Physical Ability
The only way to control a hot air balloon is by operating the burner and vent. Operating the burner seems very easy, but it requires concentration and precision so any nervousness or emotional tension resulting in over-control have an immediate effect on the flight. Pilots must control their emotions so they can demonstrate their abilities with an even temperament at all times. The preparation and accumulated flying experience are therefore of crucial importance for the pilots.

Scoring Points
The winner of each task will get 1,000 points, the others get less, calculated proportionally according to their achievement in the task. The winner is the pilot who gathers the most points during the competition. It is important that pilots do not fail by trying to score too many points in one particular task instead of achieving a good overall average, and that requires good tactics, adapting and anticipation skills.

Results of competitors are calculated according to the task rules. It can be the distance between their markers and goals, targets in the air or on the ground – measured by meters or calculated in space (3D), greatest area, greatest distance within a set airspace, or angle. The task winner gets 1,000 points. Only the scores of the top 50% of pilots in the competition are calculated by comparing their results to those of the winning pilot. This means the following: if a competitor’s result is close to the first placed pilot, he will be awarded points close to 1,000 points. The mid-fleet pilot will score about 500 points and pilots in the lower 50% of competitors will be scored by evenly dividing the remaining 500 points by their ranking order. The scoring system advantages pilots in the top half of the fleet.

Competition ABC

Competitor should have a valid balloon pilot licence, medical certificate and at least 50 hours as pilot-in-command. He represents his club at the national championships and his country at the international events.

Director of the Competition is the soul of the competition. He sets competition tasks and he adjusts them regarding the given weather conditions and terrain itself.

Target is a prominent cross displayed in the vicinity of a goal or at a specified coordinate set by the Director of the competition. Size of a target leg is 10 x 1 m; it is made in buoyant coloured material, so that it can be easily seen from afar. The Measuring Team is always positioned close to the target.

Goal could be a physical object distinctly seen on the map or in nature; it is usually a road junction, or it could be set only by given coordinates and altitude.

Logger is a device that logs GPS track of the competitor and is used to enter electronic marks and declare goals during the flight. It is used as an observation tool to monitor compliance with the rules, regarding flying in the prohibited zones, altitude control and compliance with the rules defining distances in competition tasks.

Marker is a colourful weighted streamer a competitor throws towards the target or a goal on the ground. Two throwing methods are allowed – free drop and gravity drop. The first is the one when the competitor throws the marker by hand towards the target, for the second one, the pilot just lets it drop over the basket edge.

Event rules, for the competitors are prepared by FAI – World Air Sports Federation, i.e. FAI Ballooning Commission (CIA) and they apply to all international competitions. They set the general and task rules for competitors, responsibilities and duties of the Competition Director, international jury, measuring officials, scorers and competitors.

Competition briefing is a meeting held ahead of the flight, where Competition Director presents all competition tasks to be performed during the flight. The meteorologist on duty gives the weather condition details and he forecasts the weather for the coming competition flights.

Competition Director sets tasks for each competition flight. It is rarely just one single task, he would usually present multiple tasks. The winner of each task scores 1,000 points for his result, other competitors get less, and their scores are calculated comparably depending on their result and the result of the task winner.

The winner of the competition is the balloon pilot who scored most points throughout the competition.