By David Rogers. October 29, 2016. STATESVILLE, NC — There were times last weekend when the skies above Statesville were like something out of children’s book or fairy tale. On second thought, maybe the Carolina BalloonFest was just that — a delight to young and old alike.
It was the 43rd running of this hugely popular event and although some strong winds and inclement weather cancelled flights on Friday, by Saturday things had calmed down and the BalloonFest got fully underway. Early risers were lucky enough Saturday morning to see dozens of hot air balloons launch all at the same time, filling the skies over Iredell County.
Few BalloonFest visitors seem to realize that an important part of this type of event is comprised of sanctioned competitions — and the pilots take the competitions very seriously, often equipping their balloons with sophisticated programs to track wind speed and direction before they fly, and with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers onboard their balloons that help them not only find the next target, but assist them in finding the best altitude to get to the next target.
Points are scored by flying over targets on the ground and dropping something resembling a weighted bean bag as close to the marker as possible. One flight director noted to Blowing Rock News, “In the early days of competition flying, some pilots felt fortunate to drop a marker within a few hundred feet of a target. Today, the center of a target might have dozens of markers within a foot of the target’s center. The competition has become so fierce that penalty points or a rules violation can make the difference between winning and losing, just like Nascar has penalties and even disqualifications.
Other competitions are also popular:
- Hare and Hound. All the balloons launch from the same site, usually a festival. One balloon takes off first and is the hare balloon. The other balloons are called the hounds, and they will launch a predetermined time after the hare. The hare lands at a suitable site and lays out a large fabric X, usually about 50 feet in diameter. The hound balloons attempt to drop their markers as close to the center of the X as possible. The closest marker achieves the highest score.
- Convergent Navigational Task (CNT). The target X is placed in a secure area, usually the festival site. The balloons can launch anywhere they want as long as they are outside of a predetermined radius from the X, usually 1, 2, or 3 miles. Pilots fly in, drop their markers at the X, and scoring is based on the distance from the center of the X.
- Watership Down. This is a two-part task that combines a CNT with a Hare and Hound. Competitors take off outside of a predetermined radius of the first target (usually at the festival site) and drop their first marker. The hare balloon launches from the first X and the hound balloons continue on to drop their second marker at the X set down by the hare.
- Key Grab. A Key grab is nearly identical to a CNT, but instead of an X at the target, a pole 10 or 20 feet high is the target. A detachable ring is fastened to the top of the pole. The first pilot who removes the ring wins the prize. Prizes can be almost anything; new cars, cash, and even new balloons have been given away! An X for a CNT is often placed near the pole and the two tasks are flown simultaneously. Throw your marker and grab the ring – you can do quite well in a single flight!
- Minimum Distance Double Drop. The
judges define two scoring areas. The task is to drop one marker in each scoring area, with the shortest distance between the two markers achieving the highest score. Watch out, though – in an effort to get your markers as close together as possible, one marker might drift outside the boundaries of a scoring area, resulting in no score.
- ELBO. Pilots take off from a common launch point (point A) and fly to a judge declared goal (point B). One marker is dropped at point B. The pilot then tries to change the direction of flight and drop a second marker at a point (point C) that will result in the smallest angle between point A and point C.
- Multiple Pilot Declared Goal. The competition director will assign pilots to drop markers at multiple targets of their choice. Targets are usually road intersections or road – railroad intersections. Sounds easy! But the targets must be identified by their map coordinates. The first target’s coordinates must be declared before launch, the coordinates for the second target must be written on the tail of the marker dropped at the first target, and so on. Errors in writing down the coordinates or choosing a target that is difficult to get to can cost precious points.
This year, the balloon competition was postponed until Sunday because of still high winds on Saturday.
The balloons may be the centerpiece or “excuse” for a lot of people to come together at the same spot, but festivals like the Carolina BalloonFest are sometimes described as a three-ring circus because there are so many things going on, especially for the kids, so going to the balloon festival on Friday or Saturday was hardly a disappointment. There was music, including bagpipes and drums, and a “midway” with a variety of crafts, handmade jewelry, walking sticks, specialty wines, inflatables for kids — and did we mention food?
Balloon owners are a mostly creative lot with names and design or color schemes to match: Freedom, Little Pirate, ReMax, Freedom Flyer, Carolina Twist, Path Forward, Dream Chaser, Hot Air Affair, Cookie, Chip Away, and Carolina Kaleidoscope to name a few.
Next year’s Carolina BalloonFest is slated for October 20-22, 2017.