Hot Air Balloons are totally dependent on the wind for their movement and interpreting the potential changes of wind direction at various altitudes requires great skill and judgement. In hot air balloon competitions pilots use the shift in the winds at different altitudes to navigate to carefully positioned goals such as 10x10m crosses or road intersections, or to achieve maximum / minimum distances between two fixed points. Each balloon carries a GPS flight recorder and a tracker unit which records the balloon's position and track. This enables the scorers to download each balloon course and calculate the results. In some competitions this information is transmitted back to the spectators who can then share the excitement of the tasks as the balloons are flying.
During the competition the pilots and crews will complete several days of highly competitive racing with one or two flights each day.
Pilots are awarded points for good performance; for instance, dropping a weighted marker bag as close to the centre of a target as possible or for distance flown as recorded by the GPS logger. A single flight usually involves several tasks so pilots need a winning strategy to maximise points at each target. This could involve flying high or maybe hugging the contours of the land, all the time using other competitors' movement for wind information. Pilots can also receive information from their ground crew about changes in the low level winds. Each pilot’s individual scores are added together to produce the overall champion for the event.
For tasks involving targets and markers, there is a team of judges and stewards who measure distances from dropped markers to the centre of the target, using tapes or survey equipment. Flying performances are also analysed using the data from the flight recorder. The results are then sent to the scoring team for verification and final calculation, including awarding penalties for any rule infringements. The best performance in each task is awarded 1000 points; others are then calculated relatively, so that second place may get 990, third may be 943 and so on.
Balloons need light wind conditions for initial inflation and safe landings; consequently, competitions often take place in the early morning or late afternoon when the winds are most gentle. Modern competition balloons are called 'racers' and have a more streamlined shape to enable them to climb and descend more quickly, helping the
Pilots to react quickly to any changing conditions. A competition sized balloon usually has a volume of between 1800 and 2200 m3 and can cost up to €40,000 while the specialised racing balloons are more expensive. Special shaped balloons, such as houses or cartoon characters are not allowed to compete as they are considerably less manoeuvrable. There are some advantages to using the racer balloons but any
normally shaped balloon can win a competition if the competitor is a good pilot. Ballooning is a spectacular and exciting sport for spectators and at the same time challenging for pilots, testing their skill and judgement.