Competition Ballooning – Race to an Area

This is one of the few timed tasks in the rule book; the others being the CRAT which I have explained already and the Maximum Distance Time which I will explain later. Race to an Area involves measuring the time taken to reach a certain point.

The rule (or information) for this task is set out in Chapter 15 of the Event Rules

This task is rarely set as in most meteorological conditions the wind increases with height so the faster you climb the quicker you go. There is little skill in that and secondly there would be large numbers of balloons climbing fast in close proximity with the danger of collision. The task is more competitive when there is a narrow band of fast wind in the lower layers (as occurs with a morning jet stream) and skill is needed to keep at the correct height, often by a few feet, over a prolonged distance.

The scoring area when observers have been used would be defined features on the map such as a straight road. As the task involved speed it was highly unlikely that your observer would arrive at that point by following in the crew vehicle so it would mean carrying the observer in the basket and as some pilots and observers objected to that, the task became unusable. With the advent of loggers it has regained some popularity. In these situations, it is more likely that the scoring area would be defined by map coordinates such that you enter the scoring area when you pass a set grid line. So if the grid line is set perpendicular to the wind direction then the only tactic is to find the best height for the fastest wind. This means keeping an eye on your GPS as you climb into the fastest layer as predicted by the piball information realising the balloon has a slight delay in picking up the momentum of the wind. Remember, the height of the piball data is from the ground elevation of the piball reader and this may be different form the height of the take-off field. Secondly if you are setting QNH on your altimeter this will read height above sea level so you will have to add the height of the ground to the piball data to give you the height you need to go to on your altimeter. Lastly the height of this narrow band of faster wind may change with distance away from the launch point and with local geographical features such that 5 kilometres downwind the fastest part of the band may be above or below you. It will also vary with time and may reduce in depth and magnitude during the task. The dilemma is that every time you change height to see if there is more speed above or below you may find out you are going slower and it will then take an agonising few seconds or minutes to regain your original height and speed. Always observe balloons above and below you to see if they are catching you or vice versa. Some pilots will also drop light objects such as small pieces of paper or shaving foam to see if they speed up or fall behind as they drop away. However, it can be misleading as the object may naturally track away as it falls.

This task can also be set with the scoring area lying at an angle to your direction of travel such that it will be closer in lower slower winds and further away in faster higher winds (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Race to an Area showing vectors at 1000ft and 2000ft

The skill here maybe in your mathematics. In this example, the scoring area has been defined as east of grid line 4000. The wind data gives a 1000ft wind as 272o/10kts and the 2000ft wind as 305o/12kts. With your calculator, you work out that at both heights it will take you 18 minutes to get to the scoring area! The calculation can be made a little more difficult in that you are given wind speed in knots whereas you are likely to estimate distances in kms so conversions are required. Once in the air, you try to find out if there is a little more wind at either height giving you more speed. Trying to work out the subtleties of each vector while flying is quite challenging. It can help if you put several ‘go to’ points on the line and then work out when heading towards one of the points what it estimates as your ETA.

Figure 2: Pilot Race to an Area, World Air GAmes, Dubai 2005.

Having explained all this I can admit that I have not faced this task in its original from for many years. What has superseded it is what is now called a Pilot Declared Race to Area. In this modification of rule 15.10 you are given the same task data: arrangement for timing and description of scoring area. However rather than the best score being the shortest elapsed time from the take off to the first valid track point in the scoring area, it is the pilot who most accurately predicts the actual time taken to do the task. If it is the first task, the pilot has to declare, before take-off, his flight duration from launch to entry into the scoring area in minutes and seconds. The timing starts as soon as the basket reaches eye height and is recorded by officials. The timing of the entry into the scoring area is recorded by logger. To calculate the time, you can only go on the information from piball data for wind speeds and directions. It is best to take the three readings around the gradient wind at 2000ft or at a height where the winds appear more stable and predictable, average the direction and speed and then work out the time it will take you to reach the scoring area. Thus, in figure 1 if the piball at 2000ft averages out at 305o/12kts then you predict 18 minutes. You have to factor in the time taken to reach 2000ft during which you will be travelling slower. Let’s calculate it takes 3 minutes to get to 2000ft during which time you average half that speed. So, in three minutes you travel 0.3NM (0.56km) leaving you 16.5 minutes to travel the remaining 3.3NM (6.1Km) giving you a total time of 19.5 minutes. Then put a ‘go to’ point at where you will cross the line and once airborne it will tell you the exact time of arrival. If this is at variance to your declared ETA, you can then adjust your height and thus speed to see if you can match your declared time. Note that this may move your track away from your intended line so you may then need to adjust the ‘go to’ point. Unfortunately, on some moving maps the ETA will be given in minutes and not minutes and seconds. The other aid is to divide the line up in half or thirds and work out the time of each leg and see if you are in front or behind at the end of each leg.

Figure 3: Calculation for Pilot Declared Race to Area in flight (Diagram courtesy of Stephen Jones)

If it a subsequent task then it is the time taken to pass through an area (usually parallel grid lines 2-5km apart) and the pilot declares in the FAI logger in the format as explained in the task sheet before reaching the area. For instance, in the 5th Dutch Balloon Trophy, 2014 the set area was between Northings 4900 and 4600. Here, you have a better chance of predicting the time accurately. You fix your altitude and measure your speed and direction and from that you can work out how long it will take to cross between the two grid lines (figure 3). Again, you may be able to make subtle changes in height to achieve a better result while flying between the grid lines. Likewise, you can divide the distance up to see how close you are to your time while flying across the area. The timings, as you pass both grid lines, are all recorded in the logger.

In a further modification to this rule you have to pass into the scoring area at an exact time given in the task data. This was set at the 13th Wloclawek Balloon Cup, 2012. The best score is the closest time (whether before or after) to the time given in the task data that the pilot crosses into the scoring area. The task data gave you a grid line from behind which you had to find your own individual launch area and then a grid line representing the scoring area which you then had to cross at the set time. You had to work out your launch time so that you arrived at the scoring area at the defined time, again factoring the time taken to get to your desired speed and height. Certainly, a task, however set, for the mathematician.

Figure 4: Waiting to take off for the Pilot Declared Race to Area 13th Wloclawek Balloon Cup, 2012

Written by David Bareford