How to Crew for a Hot Air Balloon




Introduction: How to Crew for a Hot Air Balloon

Ballooning is not an individual sport. The ground crew is an essential and integral part, and nothing is more valuable for a good and successful flight than a well trained and well instructed ground crew. This is an shorter version of a chase crew guide that I put together to help train volunteer crew for a balloon event. My sources were an outline by Peggy, who does repairs and crews, and my own 18 years of personal experience.

Ballooning on Antelope Island, Northern Utah

Step 1: Balloon Terminology

There are several different makes of balloons and each brand has a slightly different set up. You should familiarize yourself with the balloon you are working with so you can identify it on a chase. Some of the different kinds are Aerostar, Balloon Works, Cameron, Thunder and Colt, and Lindstrand.

Bag: A heavy canvas like container that holds the envelope, stuff sack

Basket or Gondola: The wicker carriage that holds people, fuel tanks, and other flight equipment.

Burner: Apparatus that changes liquid propane to vapor and supplies ignition for flame

Chase Crew: People who assist the pilot in launch, flight, chase, landing, deflation and pack up

Chase Vehicle: Vehicle used to carry balloon to launch site and to retrieve it at landing site

Cold Inflation: The process of filling the envelope with cold air

Crown: Top of the envelope

Crown Line: Rope attached to the top of the balloon used to control inflation and deflation

Drop Line: A rope connected to the basket that is dropped to a crew person on the ground that can pull the balloon to a suitable place to deflate

Envelope: The fabric part of the balloon

Equator: Middle section of the envelope

Fuel Tanks: Containers where propane is stored for use during inflation and flight

Hot Inflation: Heating the cold air with burners until the envelope will stand vertical

Inflator Fan: A fan used to blow cold air into the envelope

Landowner: A person who owns the property on which you are trespassing. You should get permission whenever possible. Do not drive through crops or try to go through locked gates. Do not cut fences. Stay on the edge of a field to cause the least amount of impact.

Load Tapes: Vertical and horizontal straps that run between fabric panels and that the fabric is attached to

Mouth or Throat: The opening in the bottom of the envelope

Red Line or Vent Line: Rope attached to the top cap or valve. Used to let out hot air during landing and deflation

Radio: Used to communicate instructions from pilot to crew

Skirt: Fabric connected to the throat to aid with cold inflation. Some balloons have a partial skirt called a scoop

Suspension Lines: Cables or ropes that connect the envelope to the basket

Tie Off: The rope that anchors the basket to the chase vehicle to keep the balloon from dragging on a windy inflation

Top Cap or Valve: A parachute in the top of the balloon used to let out hot air to maneuver to different levels and to deflate the balloon

Weigh Off: Lightly holding on to basket at launch to control direction away from objects

Eden balloon festival (northern Utah)

Step 2: Qualities a Crew Should Have

- Love to fly
- Common Sense
- Positive Attitude
- Willing to follow instructions
- Cleanliness, both in hygiene and language
- Good Driving Skills
- Driver's License
- Ability to back up a trailer

Step 3: Things Crew Members Need to Know About Proper Dress

- Layer clothing according to weather
- Wear long pants for sage hopping and cactus dodging
- Wear sturdy shoes with good tread or warm winter boots (No heels or sandals)
- Wear leather gloves for handling ropes
- No long scarves, coat strings, fanny pack straps, loose long hair, etc. These items can become caught in the inflator fan.
-No excessive jewelry or pins which can snag balloon fabric

Step 4: Selection of Launch Site

- Take into consideration the different problems a launch spot can have for crew, including:
-Deep snow (you can't move)
-Tall weeds and grass (you get entangled)
-Ice (slick footing)
-Rough ground (rocks, holes, debris)
-Cow pastures (cow patties)

- Also take into consideration space for the crown line and try to avoid obstacles such as:
-Ditches, fences, snow banks, buildings, etc.
-If it is necessary to use a short crown line, only an experienced crew person should do so.

Snow Canyon Utah

Step 5: Things Crew Should Know Before Take Off

- Where the inflator fan is placed in the chase vehicle after launch
- How the inflator fan is tied down (a loose inflator fan gets ugly!!)
- Where the envelope bag and other equipment is stored for the chase
- Where emergency numbers are located in the chase vehicle, including:
-A pre-arranged number to call in case the balloon is lost (pilot's cell phone)
-911- in case of an accident
- Leave keys in vehicle, have an extra key outside the vehicle
- How to drive chase vehicle
-Know how to back up a trailer, if necessary
- If you are a fan tender, make sure you know where the off switch is
- When preparing for cold inflation (using inflator fan to fill balloon with cold air):
-No smoking
-Do not step on fabric
-Be attentive to pilot instructions for various tasks

Step 6: The Inflation

- Proper Crown Line Procedure
"The crown line is the most important interaction between the pilot and
the crew."
- The purpose of the crown line person is to stabilize the balloon and keep it from oscillating from side to side, not to hold it down.
- The crown line person needs to understand the pilots hand signals for direction and to stabilize oscillation.
- Do not wrap any ropes, cables, or cords around your hand or any other part of your body
- Hold crown line taut allowing the envelope to rise slowly as pilot hot inflates
- Do not allow the envelope to go past vertical
- If the valve velcro comes loose, let the envelope up faster to about 2/3 of the way up or until the inside pressure reseats the top. Then slow down until the envelope is vertical.
- A safe short line procedure is:
- Pile extra rope behind you so you won't step into it as it uncoils
- Put rope around your backside and do not cross in front of the body
- Do not wrap around hands, feet, or any other part of the body

The Mouth
- Using the suspension lines hold the mouth of the balloon open so that air from the inflator fan can fill the envelope
- When the pilot begins to heat the air, look away from the flame and don't let go until the balloon rises

The Inflator Fan
œ "The inflator fan is the most dangerous piece of equipment that is
- Remove loose articles of clothing and dangling jewelry
-Know where the off switch is
- Hold fan to prevent it from vibrating out of position
- If you are instructed to move the fan, turn it off. NEVER MOVE THE FAN WHILE THE BLADE IS SPINNING!
- When you are signaled by the pilot, turn off the fan.

Step 7: Pre-launch Procedure

- After hot inflation, crown line person will secure crown line handle to the basket
- Move the inflator fan back out of the way (about 10 feet or near chase vehicle)
- Complete a radio check
- Put weight on the basket by holding down on the sides of the basket until the pilot instructs you to let go or "œweight off"

Step 8: Things for the Crew to Do After Launch

- Pack up and secure equipment
- Tie down inflator fan
- Envelope bag and all other covers and tie off equipment should be properly stored
- Check all tie down, tailgates, trailer hitch, and make sure the keys are in vehicle

Step 9: The Chase

- Keep a visual or radio contact with the balloon
- Use radio courtesy
- Communicate clearly
- Identify yourself if there are others on your channel
- Use appropriate language, do not criticize other crew members on the radio
- Use short, clear, accurate instructions
- Listen carefully, comprehend and/or ask questions
- Keep radio use to a minimum, especially if there are others on the channel
- Always give feedback over the radio to let the pilot know that you heard and understand his or her instructions (ex. "œok" or "Roger"
- Drive with respect for others
- Obey all traffic laws
- Don't try to watch the balloon and drive at the same time, pull over to watch the balloon
- You can hang out in parking lots or wide spots along the road while waiting, but do not impede traffic.
- Leave yourself turning options
- Try to stay ahead of the balloon, but not too far, in case it changes direction
- Follow pilot instructions to get you to the landing area

Step 10: Land Owner Courtesy

You are trespassing!
- The crew is usually the first one in contact with the land owner. It is extremely important to make sure you are:
- Courteous (Never argue or threaten)
- Respectful to property, ask permission if at all possible
- Not Intrusive (Never enter into a field on a crop, cut fences, or leave gates open. Be aware of livestock. Drive only one existing roads if at all possible
- If things get out of line or out of control with the land owner:
- Do not argue
- Contact the pilot
- Police may have to be called to mediate

Step 11: The Landing

- If possible, be at the landing site before the balloon lands
- Don't park chase vehicle in the path of an incoming balloon
- You can park by obstacles, including power poles, fences, trees, building, etc
- Approach the basket from the sides or behind
- Never stand in front (downwind) of moving balloon basket while the balloon is landing or while walking the balloon
- On a "high wind" landing stay out of the way until the balloon is down
- On a regular landing, crew can assist by catching the basket from behind, and slowing the forward motion by putting weight on at the moment of touch down. Lift feet off the ground to prevent injury from being dragged off the basket or the basket landing on your feet. If the basket bounces more than a few inches off the ground, LET GO OF THE BASKET!
- Do not put feet on handles of step holes to hold the basket down

Step 12: Deflation and Pack-Up

- The crown line person will pull down wind on the pilot's instruction, pulling the envelope into a horizontal position
- Pull as hard as you can and don't let go!
- Other crew members will squeeze the air out of the envelope, or "milk" the balloon
- Starting at the skirt, gather the fabric in your arms squeezing air out. Work your way towards the top of the balloon until it is flat. (make sure there is nothing sharp on your clothing or in your pockets that can snag the fabric.)
- Pack envelope in bag
- Load equipment into the chase vehicle and replace proper tie downs
- Never drag the envelope bag on black top or cement
- After it is tied shut, it is ok to roll the bag

Step 13: Emergency Procedures

- Power Line Contact
- DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING ! - electricity may be traveling through the balloon and will travel through you to ground
- Call the power company and give them the number of the nearest pole (all poles have an ID number on them)
- Keep others away
- Injuries During Landing
- Be prepared for cuts, burns, bruises, or broken bones
- Call 911 if injury is serious
- Do first aid to make sure the injured person is breathing
- Don't move the injured person if there is a possibility of neck or back injury
- In case of burns, cool the burned skin by pouring cold water on it. Remove jewelry and clothing from near the burned area. Cover the burned area with something clean and dry. Seek medical attention immediately.
- In case of a broken bone, control bleeding if present. If the bone is sticking out, cover it with something clean. If you can not get immediate medical attention, splint the bone until you can get to a hospital.
- Lost Balloon (No radio contact)
- Call the pre-arranged cell phone number to contact the pilot and get direction to the location of the balloon.
- If you can not reach the pilot, contact race officials.
- Emergency Equipment
- Most pilots have a first aid kit in the chase vehicle
- There is a fire extinguisher in the basket of each balloon. Some pilots also keep one in the chase vehicle.

Step 14: Soft Landings!

This is only a guideline so you will know what to expect on your ballooning experience. Each pilot has a slightly different way of doing things. Listen carefully to directions. The pilot will assign jobs and explain in detail. If you don't understand something, ask questions until it is clear.

Soft Landings!

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    1 year ago

    Great article! One observation though - the 1st photo of step #14 is a little cringe-y. Flying a balloon over thick cloud cover may not be a wise idea.

    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 1 year ago

    I know. right? got a cool pic though.


    5 years ago

    Balloon flights is great experience. We invite us to our balloons directory. If you are pilot or fan you will find very interesting balloon companies, look:


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, I wish I had found this information two weeks ago. This is great info to have ahead of time. A retired co-worker ( 2nd job) asked if I would be interested in helping him crew his balloon. We are both retired veterans and I live in the area he launches from so I know most of the back roads. I would crew for free, but dont tell him ;)


    10 years ago on Step 14

    What a great article, and a BIG Thnaks for giving me permission (but with acknowledgements) to use it for the training of some crew in UK.

    Best regards Colin


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice. I crewed for over five years till I had to move. Note on the take-off site: The pilot generally picks the site, not the crew. Often based on the wind and what landing sites are down-wind for the current conditions (in the east we often landed in locations a person from the west found initially daunting till they learned the unique flying conditions). Hardest thing to learn was patience and to not get ahead of the balloon if at all possible till close to landing time (when you want to try to talk to the land owner). Roads don't always follow the wind and if the vehicle/trailer rig is long it pays to consider the road network :-)  As the world's laziest crw member I always tied hard to get the rig as close to the balloon landing as possible, especially if it was just me and the pilot! Sometimes the pilot will allow a "taxi" closer to the chase vehicle, sometimes it is a long heavy haul (and then the stone walls in New England don't look so pretty).

    Fastest talking I ever did was to a Law Enforcement officer responding to a 911 call ensuring the officer we were fine, the sound of the burner was wasn't a failing "engine," what they were seeing was "normal" (uh, kinda), and "legal" (well, FAA does have some regulations about distances and heights that, uh, might have been bent but the wind had shifted and we were running out of landing options). Crewing has many responsibilities.

    Check out the site and see who is working in your area. Call and ask about coming to watch/learn and you may get a chance to help but it may take more then one trip to show you are serious. In my experience #1 way to hack off a pilot and crew is to start asking about crew rides. Every pilot is different and some are better then others. My pilot always bought breakfast for the crew (most don't), and if there was only one paying passenger, with the client's permission would take a crew member for the flight. But it was a gift, not a "right." Being willing to come out and solo crew(oh fun) in marginal weather (meaning we didn't want to call a client as the flight had a 70% of not going) I earned five hours of logged time (all commercial balloon pilots are also instructors) when the weather turned out OK for a lesson. The I bought breakfast and would offer to pay for fuel (my pilot knew I was broke). Was one of the best five years of my life.

    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Yeah, the launch site is the pilot's descision. I just added that because you should make yourself aware of what you're in for. its nice to be active for the whole process so you know whats going on and what the pilot is thinking.

    patience is key. nothing more anoying than a crew chief the drives around in circles all morning. and I think I could rival you for laziest in the world. the less work you have to do the more fun you're having right. the "laziest" way is usualy the most efficent.

    I swear I've had that same conversation with a police officer! some people think balloons land at airports and dont know flames are normal, uuh manditory. one time a fire truck and ambulance showed up at an elementary school demo we were diong. the balloon was teathered but one of the kids model tissue paper balloons (instructable comming soon) hit power lines and someone thought it was a real balloon further away.just imagine the fast talking that followed.

    I've found that with the smaller commercial opperation (2 to 4 passengers at a time) the pilots can't afford to pay as much and are more likely to offer crew rides to gain loyalty. with the bigger companies probably better off to just buy a ride or lesson. ether way a crew ride is ALWAYS a gift coustomers ALWAYS have priority, and it would be concidered rude to stop comming out after you get your ride.

    Sence i wrote this instructable I've gotten my pilot's licence and I'm just a few hours and a check ride away from my commercial raiting. you should visit Utah and check out out WIDE OPEN landing sites. 


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Big congrats! The pilot I crewed for actually moved to CA partly for those big open spaces. But with the general down-turn etc. I believe his aircraft have gone out of annual and are for sale. I live right outside DC now and just don't care to drive :90 to get to where people fly. This really brought back some goos memories. I wish you the best!


    12 years ago on Introduction

    I have been an avid balloon watcher for years and am now looking for a crew in New Jersey to work with. I crewed once or twice, but now I really want to get involved. If anyone can help, I would appreciate it!


    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    sorry I don't know anyone on the east coast. Balloonists, by nature are very approachable.  the best thing to do is get online and see who is selling rides in the area, call them up and ask if they need crew. If they need help, and If you're a good worker you can earn a ride. most pilots I know will give rides to new crew members after three or four flights. also any commercial pilot is certified to give flight instruction. just let the pilot know what you want to get out of it and he or she will most likely work it out with you, but you will be expected to work. If they don't need help ask where the launch field is and go watch. or chase them down when you see them flying. The key to getting on a crew is to make yourself available. the more you hang out around balloons the better chances you have of getting in one. All balloonists love to see new people getting excited about the sport.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    i would love to be on a hot air balloon we just had the balloon festival up here in dansville NY and they asked me to help with a balloon for a glow and it was a pain to fold up the 600 LB top me and a bunch of other kids helped it was fun but it was hard work but i would still love to go for a ride or even pilot one but do you have to have any licence to be a pilot

    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Balloons are type certified just like air planes and helicopters. that means you need all the same kind of training to get a pilots license. logging hours with an instructor, pass a written test, an oral test and a flight test. the good thing about all that is that you have all the same rights as other aircraft. like flying for hire. taking passengers and flying over congested areas. unlike ultra-lights which don't require a license, (still a good idea to get some training) the fastest way to get your license is to go to a balloon flight school like the one I work at in park city Utah. Any commercial rated pilot is qualified to give instruction, so it would probably be easier for you to find someone close by and ask how much they would charge for lessons (or work it off by crewing). it is kind of an expecive sport to get into, but still a lot cheaper than air planes or helicopters. its kind of a lot of work too as you found out, but with a good pilot/crew team not so much that it isn't fun


    13 years ago on Step 14

    Very good description. Having crewed on many flights, I appreciate the brief but concise instructions.


    13 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice and comprehensive. My 10-year old and I volunteered every Sunday AM a couple seasons ago. It was a lot of fun (except getting-up at 4am!)

    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 13 years ago on Introduction

    Cool, where did you fly? 4am sucks, but it's always worth it to get out of bed


    Reply 13 years ago on Introduction

    We crewed for Vista Balloon, based out of Newberg, OR, which is five miles from my house. They fly about five balloons (and can call-in some privately-owned ones for busy days) with capacities of up to eight passengers (plus pilot).

    After all balloons were back, they put on a pretty good brunch, including $25 bottles of champagne! ;-)

    Mike Whipple
    Mike Whipple

    Reply 13 years ago on Introduction

    it looks like a great place to fly. I go out mostly in Park City, UT. I have crewed for one of those big operations. 3 balloons with up to 12 passengers each. those big balloons are a lot of work, it almost takes the fun out of it. my favorite is the southern Utah adventure flights with Skywalker Balloons