Promote Aviation With Inclusive Participation

By Scott Spangler on September 6th, 2021

Over the decades, the Young Eagles program has given millions of youngsters what, in many cases, were their inaugural flights in an aircraft smaller than a transport category airliner. This includes my kids and my grandchildren, which gives you an idea of how long pilots have been participating in the program. Unfortunately, its desired outcome—inspiring youth to become members of the pilot community—has not achieved the desired or hoped for magnitude.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the anemic number of Young Eagles who act on their inaugural inspiration. One I had not considered came to mind after reading about a new program in Washington that introduces a diverse cohort of newcomers to hot air ballooning. Unlike a Young Eagles flight, a passive, one-and-done experience akin to a theme park ride, the balloon program encourages the aeronauts to become volunteer members of the team necessary for every flight of a hot air aerostat.

Similar opportunities exist with gliders or sailplanes. Unlike powered aircraft, where a single person, usually the pilot, can prepare them for flight, gliders and balloons cannot fly without the contribution of others. Besides the pilot, gliders need at least two other people to take flight, someone to connect the tow rope and run with the wingtip in hand until the ailerons take effect, and another person to pull the tow rope, such as the tow-plane pilot or tow winch operator.

There are many more opportunities for hands-on participation on a balloon crew, which is always supervised by the pilot. A single person cannot wrestle the basket and propane fuel bottles in position. Nor can the pilot spread out the envelope, set up the fan to start inflating it, and operate the basket’s burners to heat that air, and then run to the top of the envelope to hold the rope that keeps the balloon from lifting off or drifting in the breeze. It takes a team, a group of individuals whose effort is repaid, over time, with a ride and, often, hands-on piloting experience.

Unlike gliders, aerostats go where the wind takes them, so the launch team is also the recovery team. Someone needs to drive the truck and trailer or van, someone else communicates with the pilot via radio, while others maintain visual contact with the balloon and do their best to translate its windborne flight to terrestrial roads and pathways. It really is an exciting challenge that encourages critical thought and problem solving. And it promotes appreciation of the efforts of every member of the team because they experience it from their own and the pilot’s airborne point of view.

Over the past four decades I have not yet encountered a balloonist or glider club that did not welcome visitors with open arms and invite them to join in the fun as a volunteer member of the team. And the situation is right, there’s often a ride upfront to set the hook. As participants in every aspect of the flight, from preflight briefing (and balloonists get into the nitty gritty in their weather briefings), it redefines ground school. If there is a downside, it is that the aeronauts often arise well before the sun to drift into the new day. But it has always been worth setting the alarm clock for the opportunity. The challenge is for powered aircraft pilots to create similar hands-on opportunities that encourage inclusive participation in the joy of flight.

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One Response to “Promote Aviation With Inclusive Participation”

  1. Grant McHerron Says:

    Crewing a hot air balloon can be a solo event (been there, done that) or involve a group of people hanging out, talking and often having as much fun on the ground as the folks in the air (sometimes more, thanks to early morning cafes & easier access to bathrooms :) ). While the former provides good opportunities for quiet thought, the latter is great for bringing new people into the fun of ballooning, training them over multiple flights to become new balloonatics & reward them with a post-flight breakfast and occasional flight.

    As a pilot, the biggest challenge I face is assembling a crew, getting out into the rural areas and having the right weather conditions (>10 knots is too fast, no rain, good visibility, dawn & dusk only). Suffice to say, building hours in a balloon makes building hours in a Cessna look like a piece of cake :)

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