Ever tried to grab a brass ring on a carrousel ride? Think it was tough?
Then try this one: Instead of approaching the ring from the other side of the carrousel, try starting after it from about two miles away, with no guarantee that once you start for it you'll end up anywhere close. Also, the ring isn't within easy reach; it's on the top of a 25-foot pole. And you can't approach it from the ground--you have to grab it as you come out of the sky. And don't think of it simply as a brass ring: Think of it as a new car. Finally, remember that at the same time, a few dozen other car-loving folks are going to be racing toward that ring at the scorching clip of around 2 m.p.h.
This sort of thing is Peter Scherm's meat and potatoes. Scherm is one of an estimated 50 active hot-air balloon pilots who live in Orange County, and swooping in on a set of car keys on a pole is something of a passion with him. A certified balloon pilot for the last seven years, he regularly competes at balloon festivals throughout the country and enters several events offered at those festivals, one of which is known as the "key grab."
"Mostly the festivals are just getting together for two weeks of fun with a lot of other balloonists," Scherm said, "and the competition comes second. With the key grab I'm pretty competitive, though. I'll be out there letting off 20 little helium balloons to check for wind direction, or I'll check out 20 different launch sites."
Hot-air balloonists might be called Orange County's invisible aviators. Because of the county's busy commercial air traffic, suburban sprawl and lack of easily accessible landing areas, the sight of a hot-air balloon in county skies is rare.
Nevertheless, in garages throughout the county sit tightly woven wicker baskets and storage bags filled with yards and yards of lightweight nylon that compose the hot-air balloonist's sky vehicle. Beyond that, all that the pilots need are a few tanks filled with propane, an inflating fan, some flat, open land and someone to retrieve them when they finally decide to return to earth.
And, like Scherm, who lives in Costa Mesa, they occasionally need the company of other balloon pilots. So they travel to places such as Las Vegas or Ocala, Fla., or Albuquerque or, more locally, to Temecula in Riverside County to float on the breezes, talk ballooning and compete.
"For most of us, the race is secondary to the opportunity to get to fly in another area of the country," said Jim Moss, a police detective and balloon pilot who lives in Fountain Valley. "You're going to a place where all the work is done for you, like the weather briefings and the launch site selections. But once you get into a race, well, we say that winning a balloon race is about 10% luck and 90% pilot error."
Actually, "race" is a misnomer, because a hot-air balloon has never been known as a quick method of getting from point A to point B. In fact, balloonists won't fly in windy weather because of the roughness of the resulting landing. Because there's no way to control the speed of a balloon--it moves no slower or faster than the wind that bears it along--most flights take place in the still air of early morning.
Which is why a balloon "race" is generally not a test of speed but of accuracy. Hot-air balloons are not steerable in the conventional sense: The only way to control the direction of flight is to ascend or descend to layers of air that are moving in the direction the pilot wants to go. Which makes flying a balloon two miles to a set of car keys atop a 25-foot pole a bit like trying to drift a large yacht into a small slip with no rudder.
"It's very, very difficult to do," said Kim Lynch, a Fullerton balloonist who, with her husband, Dave, operates a commercial balloon charter business. "Some people get really scientific about it and launch little guide balloons and look around for good launch sites. But usually the people who win just say, 'Well, this looks like a good spot,' and off they go.
"It can get very, very frustrating, though. You can come within 10 feet of the pole, or you can come so close that the keys are just out of reach, and there's nothing you can do to get closer and get them."
Winning the event, Moss said, "is like a hole in one in a golf tournament."
Other conventional balloon events include a "hare and hound" race, in which the entrants chase a leader balloon and try to land or drop a bean bag closest to the leader balloon's landing spot. Another, called a convergent navigational task, involves balloonists trying to maneuver and drop a marker closest to a fixed target on the ground.
Also, Kim Lynch said, there are the occasional novelty events. She recalled one that required each pilot to drop a table tennis ball into a fiberglass spa on the ground. The first pilot whose ball didn't bounce out of the spa took the spa home as a prize.