How Hot Air Balloons Compete

Last Updated 10/6/2023In We Are Statesville

Written by: Drew Egerton

People love to watch balloons float gently through the sky, drifting, seemingly aimlessly, with the wind. However, did you know that balloons compete by steering accurately to targets? In this article we’ll explore how balloon competitions work and what you’ll see at many balloon events such as Carolina BalloonFest here in Statesville!

One of the most common questions balloonists get is how do we steer a balloon? The wind actually blows at different speeds and directions at different altitudes above the ground. Although we cannot control our left and right in the traditional sense, we can ascend or descend to find those changes in the wind. Pilots use forecast wind models to predict the conditions, then release small helium balloons and watch them with a compass to confirm the available directions and speeds. Some days, there may only be a few degrees difference in direction, while other days we can even go back in the opposite direction.

The essence of ballooning competition is not a race judged on speed, but rather on accuracy of using those winds to steer to a target. When competitions began in the early 1970s, the goal was to land at the target. However, when piloting skills improved it led to multiple balloons trying to land in the same place. Not so safe! Instead, we now use fabric streamers that are weighted with sand, called a marker. The marker weighs just 77 grams, so they are safe for anyone below, but that also means they cannot be thrown very far. Pilots can choose any way of dropping their marker from straight down to winding it up to throw for extra distance. A fabric ‘X’ target is 10 meters wide with a nail in the center marking the best possible result. Markers are typically measured by the scoring team within 75 meters of the center.

Here are a few different types of tasks that you may see at an event like Carolina BalloonFest:

  1. Fly In or Judge Declared Goal
  2. Hesitation Waltz
  3. Gordon Bennett Memorial
  4. Minimum or Maximum Distance Double Drop
  5. Hare and Hounds
  6. Watership Down

Fly In (FIN) or Judge Declared Goal (JDG) – The event sets the ‘X’ or target location and pilots throw their markers as close to the center as possible. A Fly In and a JDG differ only in where the target is placed. For a Fly In, pilots will go upwind and find their own launch sites and the target is placed at the festival’s main field. If you live within a couple of miles of the Statesville airport, you might get a knock on the door asking for permission to use your yard! A JDG works the same way but could be placed downwind from the airport.

Hesitation Waltz (HWZ) – This task is similar to a JDG. The difference here is that the event can set two, three, or more targets for the pilots to choose from. The pilot still only has one marker to throw, so they must choose which target to aim for. The “hesitation” comes in choosing the best target for the available winds. Frequent indecision is common during this task!

Gordon Bennett Memorial (GBM) – A scoring area is outlined by tape or fabric on the ground and the pilot must throw their marker inside that area. The result is still the distance to the center of the target, but the target is outside the scoring area. This kind of task is a challenge of risk v. reward as pilots must choose between going for the best possible score at the corner of the scoring area or playing it safe to ensure their marker lands inside. Markers outside the scoring area are not measured and are worth last place points.

Minimum or Maximum Distance Double Drop (MDD or XDD) – Similar to the GBM, a scoring area in outlined by tape or fabric. The difference here is that there are two separate areas and each pilot has two markers. To achieve a valid score, pilots must put one marker in each area and the result is measured as the distance between the two markers, not to the target. This is another task that challenges pilots to consider the risk v. reward of going for the corners of the scoring area.

Hare and Hounds (HNH) – As if steering a balloon to a set target isn’t hard enough, this task requires pilots to follow a moving target. One balloon, typically flown by someone on the event staff, will inflate and launch first as the “hare” balloon. The competitors are not allowed to start their inflation until the hare balloon has launched. The hare will hang a part of the target outside the basket to distinguish it from the “hounds” who are trying to follow the same flight path. The hare balloon will land after about 20 minutes of flight and put the target out in the same field. The hounds will attempt to throw their marker at the target, closest to the center wins.

Watership Down (WSD) – Very similar to the Hare and Hounds task, the only difference here is that the hare balloon will launch from the location of another target, such as a Fly In or JDG. The trick here for pilots is to time their approach to the first task so that they do not get ahead of the hare balloon. Since we cannot steer backwards, getting ahead of the hare balloon would likely forfeit any chances of scoring on their target.

A typical competitive flight in the morning at Carolina BalloonFest consists of three tasks. Pilots will choose their launch sites for a Fly In task combined with either a GBM or double drop, then continue downwind to a JDG or HWZ. Each task is worth a maximum of 1,000 points and the pilot scoring the most points throughout the weekend is declared the overall champion. The best place to get a close-up view of the competition is at the festival site for the Saturday and Sunday sunrise flights. Bring a lawn chair, sit just outside the marked scoring areas and cheer on your favorite pilots! Oh, and don’t forget to be on the lookout for markers coming down from above just in case the pilots can’t quite get to the center of the target!

Learn more about the Carolina Balloonfest here.



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