It has been a couple of weeks since we returned from the World Championships in Austria, and I have finally had some time to stop and reflect on the amazing competition that it was. We came back from the event completely exhausted but elated with the success we had.
The 23rd FAI World Hot Air Balloon Championships was held in Groß-Siegharts, Austria. Groß-Siegharts is a pretty little town about 100km NW of Vienna, sitting amongst beautiful rolling hills, corn fields and pretty forests. More importantly it is also a fantastic place for competition ballooning. There are plenty of roads (most of them pretty small), lots of places to land and the locals are really friendly (especially when your balloon has a 20m smiley face on it).
This year the Australian Balloon Team consisted of 4 pilots (Nicola Scaife, Matt Scaife, Sean Kavanagh and myself) and a support team of 12 core competition crew plus tribe of others helping look after the Scaife and Kavanagh offspring.
We all arrived in Groß-Siegharts about 4 days before the competition started, allowing for plenty of time to get over jet lag and some time to get some practice flights in. The forecast for the following competition week looked like it was going to allow for a lot of flying, so we decided to only fly mornings and not tire ourselves out before the actual comp started.
For someone who doesn’t normally do a lot of flying, I had done a fair bit of practice in the months leading up to the event. So during the practice flights it was reassuring that I actually remembered how to fly. Also, it was only the second comp I had flown my new Kav EX60 (Balloony McBalloonface), but as I had found in Canowindra in April, it was such a dream to fly. I was able to put it exactly where I wanted. So I felt really good going into the competition.
Being the end of Summer in Austria, it was really hot. This took a lot to get used to. By the time we were landing in the mornings, it was already getting into the mid 20s. In the evenings, we were often taking off in the high 20s. Not only did this make it sweaty work for the team, but fuel management soon became something to really think about. On a couple of occasions we were trying to squeeze as much fuel out of our tanks as we could and had to really plan our tasks so that we would not run out of fuel. I can see why many people in the Northern Hemisphere fly larger envelopes, so they can carry more fuel.
The other big impact that flying at this time of year had was the length of the days. Morning briefings were at 5am and evening briefings were at 5pm. So most days were managing about 3-4 hours sleep at night and maybe 2 during the day (if we were lucky). By the 5th day of the competition we had flown every morning and evening slot, so everyone became zombies. Life became pretty simple at that point… fly, refuel, eat, sleep, repeat.
The actual competition ran for 7 days. There were 10 competition flights that consisted of 31 tasks. Director, Claude Weber, set some challenging tasks throughout the week. There were a lot of the classics (Judge and Pilot Declared Goals and Hesitation Waltzs). However after the first couple of flights, the targets (with gravity marker drops) were ending up with piles of markers on the crosses. So Claude started mixing up the tasks and started adding extra complexities to the traditional tasks, such as time restrictions for when the scoring areas would be open.
At times, the flying around targets was pretty intense. You only have to look at some of the photos and videos on Facebook to see what I mean by this. At most targets you would expect to have 10-20 balloons around you and a lot of bouncing off other each other. I had markers landing on top of my envelope and on one occasion even had one land in one of my tanks. The congestion caused a lot of issues with pilots not being able to get as good results at targets as they hoped. Early on in the week, I made the conscious decision to launch about 5 minutes behind the leading pack and was able to get to targets with relatively less traffic than those who were eager to launch at the start of the launch periods. This seemed to have paid off.
The scorers were also running the new dangerous flying software, which calculates balloon vertical speed when in close proximity to other balloons. As a result, you will see in the scores that a lot of penalties and warnings were given throughout the week.
It is no secret that Australia did really well overall. Our number one aim was to get all 4 pilots into the top 30, which we achieved. This is no mean feat, considering we only really have one or two competitions in Australia each year. Many of our competitors flew more than this in the weeks leading up to the Worlds. Getting more pilots into the top 30 increases the number of slots we will get at the next Worlds. Nicola flew amazingly well during the competition, coming 9th overall (after a stint of being in the top 3). Matt Scaife ended up in 15th place and Sean Kavanagh finished in 28th place. I personally went into the event with what I thought was a lofty dream of getting a top 30 spot, so coming 23rd was awesome.
The Australian Team worked incredibly well. In fact, Australia received a FAI Competition Diploma for having the 3rd best country average (after Russia and Belgium). We proved at this event that the only way to do well in modern competitions is to have a well coordinated team, which pulls everyone up the rankings. If you look at the results, it was the countries working as teams that did well (both as a team and also for the individuals). The Swiss, French, Brits, Russians and Australia were all running well coordinated teams and they did a lot better than most. Countries such as the US and Japan, who normally do very well at these competitions, were not working in teams and their results reflected this. There were a lot of people commenting on how well the Aussies were operating and were jealous of our organisation.
I thought it would be worth covering some of the things we did right as a team:
- After every briefing, the pilots discussed a rough plan before leaving the briefing hall and always arranged to meet somewhere to do pibals and to plan the flight.
- During the flight we had a common radio channel between the balloons. This allowed us to give each other information, discuss tactics, provide clearance calls and give each other moral support.
- The secret is out that the Australian Team (for a few years now) have been using very advanced team tracking functions within OziTarget. This allowed the pilots to track each other and see exactly what directions and speeds each other had at any time. Plus allowed us to see each other’s tracks at targets giving us a huge advantage.
- Having a Team Manager (Adam Barrow) in the briefings and on the ground to coordinate where each of the crews were going to be was invaluable. Also having Adam as a free agent meant he could be at the first goal before we launched. This meant as soon as we were in the air, we had information about lines of approach to the target.
- Having a dedicated Windsond Team (Alex Aiken and Helmut) allowed us to have 2-3 windsonds sent off during each flight. They did a great job getting us the data and finding the sonds.
- Having experienced competition crew on each of the balloon crews was essential. It did not matter which crew got to a target first, because everyone on the ground was able to talk the pilots into targets.
- Not trying to get every crew to every target is essential. By sending the different crews to different targets meant we had coverage at all targets and they were able to avoid traffic congestion.
- Most importantly, everyone got on really well. During such an intense week, the Aussie (and New Zealand) sense of humour was so helpful to keep everyone relaxed.
The next Worlds will be in 2020 in Slovenia. Depending on how many entrants they allow at the event, Australia should have 5 or 6 spots. With a bigger team, it will be essential that the 2020 team look thoroughly at what worked this year and what could be improved to make our team even more successful.
I could write a book about all the learnings and adventures we had during the week. However, I really want to give a big shout out to my awesome crew of Kath Robertson and Lauren Allen. People were concerned that having such a small crew was going to be a problem for us, but these two did an amazing job and we had a lot of fun. Also thank you to the broader Aussie Team who really should be proud of what they achieved. Finally, thanks to everyone at home and around the world that was supporting us leading up to and during the competition.
Well I made a big discovery today. I discovered the Lane Cove River. All these years of paddling in the Sydney region and I have never paddled up this river before.
Today I decided that I was going to test out my elbow and do a longer paddle than I have done recently. I started at Burns Bay Reserve in Lane Cove and paddled 7.5km up the Lane Cove River to the entrance of the Lane Cove National Park in Ryde.
The first part of the paddle is along the upper part of the harbour, and surrounded by mangroves. Once you get past the tide line, the river narrows and it is a beautiful bushy paddle. Apart from distant traffic noise, for most of the trip you would not think you were in central Sydney.
After the 15km paddle (there and back), over 2.5 hours, my elbow was fine and I really enjoyed the morning.
I now plan to try out different locations around Sydney on a regular basis.
As far my mid-life crisis training goes (see previous post), I have managed to do something 6 out of 7 days so far. So going well.
Here are all the posts I wrote for BalloonPong.
Final Day – Monday
Well it is all over and what a spectacular ending!
The final flight consisted of 4 tasks; a Fly In, a Minimum Distance Double Drop, a Judge Declared Goal and a Fly On. The MDDD and the JDG shared the same target, so pilots had to throw 3 markers at this goal.
Going into the flight the scores between Top 3 (Yudai, Rhett and Joe) were close. However Joe and Rhett would have to pull out an amazing flight to take down the World Champion.
It was another morning of great steerage along the river in the Utsunomiya valley. Pilots spread out across the valley to find their own launch points.
On the first task, the Fly In, both Joe and Yudai scored sub 1-meter results, giving them points in the high 900s. Like all week there were a lot of great results on this target.
Pilots had to then fly into the river valley and into the baseball field that we had been using as a common launch point. Pilots had to throw 3 markers at this goal, two for the MDDD and one for the JDG.
Yudai came in first and scored 2 great results. From the edge of the field it looked like it was game over and Yudai would walk home with the big cheque. However Joe came in and absolutely smashed it. It was still going to be close.
On the final Fly On, Yudai (still out the front of the pack) scored 1.25m. In a normal competition this would be a great result, but not here. A result over 2m on this task would only get you 600 points. Joe then finished off the flight with a 12cm drop and won the task.
On returning to the competition center, there were a lot of people anxiously waiting for the scores of the morning to be calculated. Many people thought Yudai still had it, but there was a glimmer of hope in the eyes of Team Heartsill.
When the results finally came out, Joe had taken out the competition by just 57 points. Yudai, who had held the number 1 slot all week, moved into 2nd. Rhett held 3rd place.
Just like 1st and 2nd, it was going to be a close race for 4th and 5th. We, Team Scaife, went into the flight in 4th place however Masafumi Sato jumped ahead of Matt by just 37 points.
So the Top 5 and the prize winners were:
1. Joe Heartsill 20755
2. Yudai Fujita 20698
3. Rhett Heartsill 19999
4. Masafumi Sato 17757
5. Matt Scaife 17720
It is worth noting that even though Yudai did not end up winning the event, he did win (by a huge margin) the 2014 Honda Grand Prix, of which Tochigi was the last stage.
It was an amazing week and the level of competition was unprecedented. It was inspiring to watch these guys in action. It is a real shame that, after 16 years, this is the last time the event will be run in Tochigi. I was just glad I could be here to be part of it. Lets hope that one day competition ballooning will return to Tochigi.
Saturday – Nov. 22 – Day 3
It was yet another day of great competition in Tochigi today.
The morning was another flight in the Motegi hills and along the Naka River. The difference with this flight was it involved a very rare Fly In into the Twin Ring. The 5 tasks that were set were a Fly In, a Judge Declared Goal, two Fly Ons and another Judge Declared Goal.
There was a lot of fog around the area, especially in the river. The teams were sent out to find their Fly In launch points, but were told to hold off launching until they received a phone message from the Director saying it was OK to launch.
Once the message was received, all the balloons headed to the Twin Ring racetrack, but unfortunately the left hand steerage disappeared and only a handful of pilots got really close to the cross.
However all the action was down in the foggy/misty river. The strong drainage winds made for some pretty tricky approaches to the first JDG, which was on the riverbank.
Once again, there were many great results on the Fly Ons. One of the intersections (118) proved to be trickier than a number of pilots had hoped due to some very tall trees in the way. There ended up being 3 very solid ground contacts at this target as pilots tried to get down after crossing over them.
The final JDG was in a tight little valley. All balloons had to do high drops because it was too quick to descend into the valley.
Looking at the scores for the morning, it looked like the top 5 pilots all had solid mornings.
The afternoon flight was a quick single Pilot Declared Goal in the Haga Valley.
Pilots were able to select 3 goals, which proved to be a good thing for Joe and Rhett Heartsill. They both decided to set 2 goals using the lower winds and then set a back up goal that would rely on the winds at about 5000ft. As we were all packing up our balloons we could see the two Texas Racers rocketing up to the upper winds. Both decided to take the risk and go for their backup targets. The gambled paid off and Joe scored about 1m and Rhett scored 10m, giving them high 900 point scores. It was a gutsy move and all respect to the them for pulling it off.
Once again there ha been a shuffle in the top 5. Yudai Fujita still holds the lead by 434 points. Joe Heartsill has moved up into 2nd place, followed by Rhett Heartsill. Matt Scaife slipped into 4th place and Masafumi Sato holds 5th place.
There is three more flights to go and the top 3 spots could still go to any of the top pack. It is going to get very interesting over the next 2 days.
Friday – Nov. 21 – Day 2
What an epic day it was today in Tochigi. There are a lot of tired balloonists walking the streets of Japan tonight.
The morning winds were very unusual this morning and very calm. At briefing, Championship Director admitted, “it was a little difficult to decide what to do this morning”. What he did do was set 4 challenging tasks in a new area at the Southern end of the map that no one had competed in before. The tasks were a Fly In, a Judge Declared Goals and two Fly Ons.
After a long drive down to this new valley, the teams found that they had the choice of the approaching the first Fly In from the North on the lower winds or from the South on the upper winds. It seemed like an even split and most balloons were able to get near the first target, only to find that the crazy ground winds would test their patience. There were no exceptional results on this target, with the winning result being 9m.
To get to the Judge Declared Goal, pilots had to sit just below the 4000ft ceiling for nearly an hour. Again, the winds at the target were very tricking and pilots had to pick the exact spot to make their decent from height.
By the time most of the teams got to the JDG, it was getting pretty obvious that fuel and time limits were going to become an issue. The winds were still very slow and the two Fly Ons both had 2km minimums.
The results of the first Fly On were all over the place. Some pilots managed to get good results, while others simply ran out of time and had to drop at the end of the scoring period wherever they happened to be.
The final task was a real struggle for most. Limited intersection choices, slow winds, low fuel, limited time, tiredness and Golf Course sensitive zones all added to the stress. Only a handful of pilots managed to get results less than 100m.
We have spent most of the day wondering why the results of the 2 Fly Ons took so long to get posted. However, now that they are up we can see why they took so long. There were a lot of penalties issued today. In fact, for the final Fly On, a third of the pilots received some sort of penalty. I highly recommend checking out the Task 11 results, as they make for an interesting read.
After a very short break, we were back in the briefing hall ready to receive the next bunch of tasks. The afternoon flight consisted of a Pilot Declared Goal (2 goals permitted) and a Hesitation Waltz (with 2 goals).
The winds were very gusty which made it very unpredictable. Again results were very mixed. Some of the pilots at the top of the rankings from yesterday ended up with some average results.
We did not hear of anyone who thought they had a good day today. With all the mixed results in the 6 tasks today, there ended up being a big shake up in the top 5. A number of the Japanese pilots also slipped out of the top spots.
Yudai Fajita continues to hold onto the top spot. Matt Scaife (and his awesome team… not that I am biased) moved up into 2nd place and Rhett Heartsill moved into 3rd place.
The weather is still looking good for the next few days, so if today is anything to go by, we will be zombies by the end of the competition.
Thursday – Nov. 20 – Day 1
Today was the first day of competition at the 2014 Tochigi Championship in Japan. The event has been running since the early 2000s and unfortunately this year is the final year the event will be run in the Tochigi area. Twenty-nine teams from 8 countries are competing in this year’s competition, half of which are from around Japan.
The first flight this morning was the classic Tochigi competition flight. Championship Director, Les Purfield set 5 tasks, flying from the Twin Ring racetrack in Motegi and heading north to the Naka River. The flight consisted of two Judge Declared Goals, a Pilot Declared Goal, followed by another Judge Declared Goal and a Fly On.
It was a very cold morning for this time of the year (30 degrees F), which meant there was very strong drainage wind down the river. All of the goals were peppered with markers and a lot of sub 1-meter results were scored. By the end of the morning, World Champion Yudai Fujita moved straight into first place with 4536 points. Rhett Heartsill was in 2nd place with 4027 points and Masafumi Sato in 3rd place with 3989 points.
At the afternoon briefing, pilots were greeted with 2 markers on their tables. The flight in the Haga valley consisted of a Fly In task and a Watership Down task. The afternoon winds provided incredible steerage. The majority of the balloons took off to the South of the target, close to the 2km minimum distance. They then flew high and ended up approaching from the North East, essentially flying a box. The hare balloon took off from the Fly In target just as the first balloons were making their approach to the Fly In. The Hare flew for exactly 30 minutes and after flying a box, landed about 300 meters from where they launched.
Many good results were achieved at both targets. At the end of the day, the top 5 shuffled around. Yudai managed to stay in the number 1 slot. Last year’s winner, Takao Mizukami, jumped into 2nd place and Masufumi Sato dropped into 3rd place. Only 500 points now separate the top 6 places.
The weather is looking great for the rest of the event, so we can expect more than 20 tasks to be flown. So it is early days.
One of the perks of working from home is that I can work from anywhere. So last Monday I headed down to Canowindra to get some pre-work flying in and finally get some actual practice in.
I did not have any crew for Tuesday morning, so I headed out on my own ready to strap my bike to the side of the basket and use that for retrieve. Unfortunately every pibal I let off went straight up and I really did not want to end up becalmed over town without a crew to help retrieve me. So I decided not to fly, but spend a couple of hours checking the accuracy of the new map that has been produced.
For the last 20 years we have been flying on a decent, but old (hand drawn) map. This has now been replaced by a new digital data map that my mate Sean Kavanagh has put together. The map is great to fly with, but unfortunately the data that has been supplied is missing a number of the intersections that we have previously used as goals. I went and checked out these intersections and it appears that the issue is that these intersections are actually substantial drive ways and hence the data did not classify them as roads. I have brought this to the attention of the competition director (Garry Lockyer). At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the road is not marked, because we will be simply flying to the waypoint.
Wednesday morning was another very still morning, but fortunately I had one of the local balloonists, Caitlin, come out to drive for me. The morning ended up being a typical Canowindra morning, where the wind drained down the river valley at sunrise. So I decided to do the normal Fly In to the ovals in town. My plan for the morning was really to just get a feel for flying again because it had been 4 months since I had flown. I had also just purchased a third large 76L and I wanted to get used to the extra weight. The flight ended up only being about an hour, because there were a lot of rain showers on the horizon and I really did not want to pack up a balloon in the rain.
I was really happy with the way I flew. I managed to get about a 20cm Gravity Marker Drop (i.e. vertical marker drop rather than throwing it) on the cricket pitch on the oval.
The extra weight in the basket also made a great difference. The main benefit (apart from having more fuel than I will ever need to use) is that the balloon stays a lot more stable when doing really fast descents. When you are too light, the balloon needs to dump more air to go fast and then starts distorting more to come down.
Probably the best thing of these couple of days is that I feel like I am now actually getting ready for the Nationals. I have spent so much time in the last year working on my physical and mental fitness, but I was really getting a bit tense about not flying.
We plan to head down to Canowindra next week and then I will be doing a Monday/Tuesday with Matt and Nicola Scaife the following week. So hopefully we will get another 4 flights in before the event.
It has been a while since I have posted on my blog. However, the Nationals are on in 2 months, so it is time to resurrect the blog and start writing about my progress.
The Nationals is going to be in Canowindra again (same location as the last 3 Nationals). The event is being run in late April, starting on Easter Monday. This year’s event is looking like it will be an amazing competition. They have got some of the top pilots from USA, Japan and Russia coming out. All up, there should be about 25 balloons competing.
I have been putting a lot of work into preparing for these Nationals. Unfortunately, being Summer in Australia, I have not been able to do any flying for a couple of months. So my preparation has had to be more mental and physical, rather than actual flying time.
About 6 months ago, after reflecting on my not so good performance at the last Nationals (6th place), I realized that I really need to work on my psychology leading up to the event. I have proven over the years that I have the ability to fly to targets. The thing that really lets me down during the competitions has been my mental state. Looking back at recent competitions (and analyzing a lot of inflight video) I have found that there are a number of things that really hinder my ability to win an event. I won’t go into the details, but they range from being distracted, taking safe options, not focusing enough or getting frustrated. I rarely get into the “zone”. I also put a lot of pressure on myself and get disappointed when I don’t win.
So to counter these short comings, I have put a lot of time into studying sports psychology and analyzing what I do right and wrong. I have also adopted visualization techniques (used by a lot of sporting greats), where you focus on the end goal and visualize the goal and how to get there. There are 2 books that I have been using for information about “how to win”.
The first, which is the main book I have been using, is called Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver’s Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success by Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld. This book really surprised me. It was just a random book I downloaded from Amazon because I needed something to read. The first half of book focuses on how Dan started parachuting and then his journey to winning the World Championships for 4s formation skydiving. However, the more interesting part is the second half which focuses on the science behind winning.
The second book, which reminds me I need to read it again, is called the Mind Gym by Gary Mack. Gary is a sports psychologist who has spent years working with US baseball and football teams and players. It is incredible how many little things you pick up in this book that you realize you have been doing wrong mentally for so many years. They seem so obvious but without stopping and thinking about them, you would never realize.
I have also been working hard on my fitness. Whilst ballooning isn’t an athletic sport as such, being fit allows you to have more endurance throughout the event and helps keep you focused. A week of competition involves a lot of flying, inflating and packing up balloons. Not sleeping a lot and eating meals at random times. Every bit of fitness helps get you through the week. My fitness training regime has no real pattern to it, because I have been doing a lot of international travel lately, which tends to kill any concept of a routine. However, I am generally getting to the gym 4-5 times a week and doing an hour a week with my personal trainer (James).
James has been fantastic in getting me into shape. I have joined numerous gyms over the years, but this is the first time that I have lasted more than a couple of months. Not only is he a motivating force, he also mixes up my routines to make it more interesting.
I took James flying in the Hunter Valley late last year, which gave him a feel for the things that I do while flying. So he has worked a few ballooning related exercises into my routines (basically lots of holding my hands above my head).
Over the next 2 months, I plan to get to the gym 6 times a week. A lot of the time I am simply spending an hour on the cross-trainer, listening to music and working on my endurance. The cross trainer is one of the most boring things to spend time on, so I figure if I can stay on it for an hour, it is great training for my endurance and concentration. I have also got to the point where I can just completely zone out and spend a solid hour thinking about my flying (visualization again).
One of the biggest issues I have been dealing with over the last 2 months is that I tore a part of a tendon of the bone in my left elbow. I don’t know how it happened, but it was just before Christmas. Last week, after 2 months of resting and physio (with no effect), I finally went to get an ultra-sound and they found the issue. They injected cortisone into the problem area, and over the last few days I have started feeling a lot better. I can now actually straighten my arm without being in pain. Hopefully this will continue to improve over the next 2 months; otherwise I will need to get another shot a week before the event, just to allow me to endure the week of flying.
The final part of my preparation for the Nationals will be to get a lot of flying in. My plan is to start getting up to the Hunter Valley every week and get some practice flights in. One of the great perks of my job at the moment is that I work from home and essentially can work from anywhere (when I am not traveling). So Matt and Nicola Scaife have kindly offered for me to use the vacant house next to their office whenever I like. This means I can pop up to the Hunter mid-week, get some flying in and still be at my desk working before 9am. I am hoping that I will be able to start this flying training next week (assuming the weather is ok).
So I plan to start posting more on the blog over the next couple of months. I don’t expect anyone to read it, but it is more a device for me to help track and think about my preparation.