Every hot-air balloon requires a crew to assist the pilot during launch and recovery activities. Most conventional "round" balloons need five to seven people to manage this process efficiently. Special shape balloons, which tend to be more complex, often require much larger crews, whereas a single-seat "hopper" may need only the pilot and one other crewmember to manage operations on the ground.
For novices, crewing is the gateway into active ballooning. During Fiesta 2004, we quite literally took advantage of family relationships to attach ourselves to the crew of the Enchanted, a balloon owned and piloted by Harold Connell of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our duties were relatively light as our experience was limited, but when push came to shove, we were expected to dive in to do whatever was necessary to help stand the balloon before launch, to chase and recover the balloon at its landing site, and to re-pack the balloon in preparation for its next flight.
Within the hierarchy of a balloon crew, key personnel consist of the pilot and the crew chief, in that order. Balloons are aircraft governed by local, national, and international regulations, and their pilots are licensed aviators who must complete a course of training specified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Crew chiefs are senior crewmembers who generally have in-depth experience with ballooning. Given the nature of ballooning with its inherent risks, it is vital that novice volunteers be willing to take instructions from senior crewmembers. Although rank is not generally obvious within a balloon crew, a volunteer’s unwillingness to respond to instructions or to share the workload as requested will ensure a short career in ballooning.
At Fiesta, out-of-town pilots often depend on support from local volunteers for the simple reason that bringing along their usual crew would raise the cost of participation. New Mexico in general and Albuquerque in particular boast a large ballooning community, and many experienced local crewmembers volunteer to help visiting pilots on either a full- or part-time basis throughout the rally. Recruiting for a crew occurs on both an informal and a formal basis, which means that onlookers suddenly bitten by the ballooning bug can volunteer their services through the Balloon Fiesta website, by telephone at 505/821-1000, or in person at a booth maintained on the south end of Balloon Fiesta Park.
Typical crew tasks for standing the balloon include manning the fan used for the cold stage of inflation, holding open the throat of the balloon to facilitate inflation, and anchoring the crown line at the top of the balloon envelope while inflation is in progress. During Fiesta, crowd control is often added to the task roster. Onlookers are encouraged to wander the launch field, but they are asked not to interfere with the work of balloon crews or to touch the envelopes with their bare hands. (Gloved hands are OK, but bare hands will leave behind natural oils and residues that can damage the fabric of a balloon's envelope.)
Once launch has occurred, the crew's key tasks shift to spotting and chasing the balloon until it returns to earth, which typically entails hopping into the back of a pickup truck and dashing off in whatever direction the balloon has taken. I have to admit that, especially at my age, speeding through the streets in the back of a pickup has its charms, despite the toll exacted in aching joints. Communication between the pilot and the chase crew is facilitated these days with cell phones, though radios and walkie-talkies are also still in use. Having a driver or passenger-seat navigator with intimate knowledge of local highways and byways is crucial to a successful balloon chase, which is why finding a local volunteer to participate in the chase is often a highly placed item on the Fiesta wish list of out-of-town balloonists.
Recovering the balloon from its landing site is often the most challenging responsibility of the crew. Despite the skill of the pilot, balloons often set down in inconvenient places. At Fiesta 2004, our crew had to lift the Enchanted over a fence topped with barbed wire, then walk it through a field of desert brush to set it down in an area less likely to damage the envelope. That meant coordinating with and responding promptly to the verbal instructions of the pilot. I found myself hanging onto the towline and pushing though chest-high tumbleweeds. Once a suitable location was found, the pilot pulled the crown line to deflate the balloon, and the chase crew proceeded to lay out and re-pack the envelope. With recovery complete, the crew loaded the balloon into the chase vehicle and piled in for the return trip to the launch field, which, of course, was where the post-flight party began!