How is it I constantly seem to ask myself, “Why is it that things ballooning have got progressively heavier?” Now, unless I’m very much mistaken lighter than air flight is about keeping things light, the word ‘lighter’ being a bit of a giveaway. Once upon a time we had equipment that was reliable (not that it isn’t now), powerful enough (at the time) and, more importantly, lighter. Big commercial ride balloons are a slightly different kettle of fish, although there are areas where it would cost nothing to make them lighter but, forgetting them, let us consider the smaller balloons that us humble folk bomb about the sky in. Are we not desperately trying to keep the sport alive and, as we all get older, still be able to handle the kit? A lot of ‘whys?’ there then. So, just like a pre-flight check, let’s have a quick look at the kit we regularly have to drag out the trailer and fly with.
Remember the old crinkly fabric? Maybe you’ve never come across it but it was brilliant stuff. Didn’t suffer from mildew (in truth not as badly as some does now), lasted a good 350 hours (often more) and was light. Fair enough a ’77 sized envelope required a bag equivalent to a 180 but two of you could comfortably pick it up. These days the best of the bunch built in standard ripstop fabric, like a Concept 77 or Bullet come in at around 80kg but that’s the equivalent of over two full 60 litre flight cylinders. More panels means more weight that is why the Concept and Bullet and, begrudgingly, to a degree, the Viva at an average of 85kg (four gores short of a real balloon as John would say) do so well. Come on chaps it really wouldn’t take much to lower the weight so let’s consider some simple fundamentals. First off the crown ring doesn’t need to be that big, a Concept has a simple welded ring so why not a N-type or Z-type, probably relatively the heaviest of the lot. The old Thunder balloons didn’t even have a crown ring they just nailed the top tapes together and bunged a rope round them. Then there are the load tapes. Surely modern materials mean that a much lighter tape could be used, maybe not quite as rubbish as the ones that Sky fitted to parachute edges but then you don’t need a tape around the edge of a parachute (so Camerons once told us in writing!). Overlaps on tapes account for a lot of extra weight as well, so what is a safe overlap? The ratchet straps we use for roping down 20 ton of hay only has about a foot of turnback and we’ve never had one of them come apart, ever. Cameron flying wires are the thickness they are because that is presumably what Montgolfier used. Lighter wires could be used and still exceed all the safety factors by a huge margin, in fact Lindstrand’s US balloons use Kevlar, more expensive but light and T&C used to use skinny little wires. I’m not aware that we replace any more T&C or Lindstrand flying wires than the hawsers used by Camerons, in fact I think we replace more Cameron ones as they are more prone to broken strands, kinking and burn damage. Then, just to make it worse, we stick karabiners rated at two and half tons on each bunch of flying wires when the maximum take off mass of the average 77 is a tad over 700 kilos for a Cameron, 770kg if it’s a Lindstrand and 776kg for an Ultramagic equating to under 200kg a karabiner. Its not until you get to a ‘120 that you get to an MTOM over 1000kg so why the extra steel? In the interests of adding weight, some pilots even elect to put a ring between the two karabiners as if two are indeed really necessary in the first place. Maybe its hard for the average pilot to divide twelve by four! Whoa up! then they go add two more when they attach a Quick Release. That’s six karabiners and four load rings. Control lines have finally got lighter, possibly the only bit that has. This has been achieved by only making the bottom few metres out of the heavier Kevlar cored line the rest being a much lighter running line connected to the heavier section through a natty nylon block (introduced by Lindstrands) but the size and integrity of some pulleys beggar belief and rob any savings. What is wrong with simple rings? Then there is the crownline. You could moor the Canberra with some of them and they usually have a socking great big karabiner on the end (making a total of seven now). How about a gentle aluminium one and adopting the ‘just a heavier bit to hang on to’ at the bottom? Scoop and control line hooks can also be monsters, all chrome plated brass, best suited to the Cutty Sark and sometimes another attached with yet another karabiner!
It’s the material the balloon is built out of though that is the puzzle. Fabric technology has come on in leaps and bounds and there is enough evidence gained from US light-weight homebuilds that shows that modern double-coated lightweight fabrics will last as long as, or out-perform, standard ripstop so why is it that the manufacturers (sparing Ultramagic) don’t promote lightweight fabric made balloons? In my mind light-weight should be the standard with heavier, possibly longer lasting, hammock material being offered as an option. One of the most bizarre questions we were asked was from someone thinking of having a balloon built in lightweight fabric. The manufacturer actually asked them if they wanted a hyperlast top! “It won’t last without it”, they were told. Good grief! Well, think about it for a moment. We are seeing the average annual hours on a balloon fall year on year and it is now probably around 15 hours a year for the more mature pleasure pilot. Let’s be really pessimistic and say a new lightweight envelope will last 300 hours. That gives them 20 years flying. Buy one in your 50s and it will most likely out live your flying days. Talking of options, why have turning vents? They represent an extra four panels at least by the time you’ve added the extra fabric and rigging. Did we mention fabric cost?
Moving down to the burner, which, compared to everything else, is surely the one thing that has increased in weight in a exponential curve sort of way. Every new model that comes out, from whoever, is heavier that what it replaces. I grant you that what you just read is incorrect grammar but, the Hot Tom was more of an adventure than a burner but, with a minimum bit of development became the Colt C2 double, probably still the most reliable and lightest burner about and more than capable, especially in its double form, from saving you from a downward rush, and that’s the thing, do you really need a double burner? There isn’t a requirement until you go over a ’90 in the case of Lindstrands or a ‘105 if it’s a Cameron or Ultramagic. Burners like the C2 Single Plus and the superb Lindstrand Jetstream single will toast your socks so why have a double? As for double burners, if it wasn’t for the fact it needs completely dismantling to service the thing or that the pilot light has the rather unfortunate bypass that means that the pilot light becomes a raging tongue of fire if not cleanly turned off, I’d put the Magnum burner as the best of the ‘modern burners’ power to weight-wise. It has toggle levers and is relatively light compared to a double Mark 4 Super (a good burner as well apart from having stupid square coils) and it is jolly powerful. The one burner that nearly does it is the Ultramagic Mk21. It is simple, really reliable and doesn’t even have jets or a daft foil system but is spoilt by the biggest bit of aluminium known to mankind for the block. Its scrap value is probably the highest of all the manufacturers.
Probably the best example of the serious ‘development’ in burner technology was the now dropped Sirocco. Now I’m not saying it isn’t a clever burner but its like buying a Ferrari when a diesel Polo will do and boy is it heavy? You really shouldn’t use one on anything under a 105 if you want to carry two passengers! Actually we had one in recently and it came in at a surprising 23kgs which means we are getting badly weak or have a thing about them. Never mind all that, this has recently been superseded by the world’s even more heaviest and most complicated burner, the Cameron Sophie Safire. Whatever, as Alice would say. I once tried to ask Bonnano if he could build a lightweight powerful simple little burner. In fairness he came up with what is now the Ultramagic Tekno thingy but it is still well far too complicated and really heavy for its size but in fairness it’s a smashing little burner once you understand how it is supposed to be used and if it wasn’t in such a hefty ugly burner frame it would probably be on the winners list. Camerons old Mark 4 frames with the corner stays were light enough and the old T&C ones even lighter but the advent of the centre-gimbal (supposedly doing away with the inner frame) means we now have burner frames that wouldn’t disgrace a sidecar chassis. Come to think of it frames on modern moto-crossers weigh naff all and boy are they strong, no, they are amazingly strong! While we’re at it why are the blocks (mentioned earlier) that the toggles, levers and fiddly bits hang off of so heavy and big. Ever studied a lightened engine like what they stick in aeroplanes? Everything is shaved down to save weight. Seems I keep harping back to them but T&C even used turned wooden handles which weigh diddly squit and Lindstrand hollowed their’s out probably to try to even out the weight of large lump of metal linking the double burners together which also served to carry the stonking great cross over valve. Having said that crossover valves seem to have been replaced by longer handles than can be used with one hand. Forgot about the hoses. Ultramagic make do with 5/16 hoses whereas all the rest use 3/8. There is only so much propane you can force through a Rego connector.
Cylinders are cylinders. There probably isn’t much in the way of lightening that can be done without causing problems, it all revolves around cost and usable volume versus weight. There were a rake of Worthingtons that got bits sawn off them and filed down to save weight the last ones being those supplied by Lindstrands for their hoppers, but that is about it. When the first titanium cylinders arrived from Russia they had lightweight rims on the base held in place by straps running up to the top guard ring. Within a short time, simply by being hammered into the ground by the more enthusiastic pilots, they started to crack. Lindstrands came up with a mod which wasn’t actually that much heavier but it did demonstrate that when designing cylinders the lowest common denominator had to be taken into account. Watching solo balloonists substitute a cylinder for a crown man or roll a basket onto a trailer with the aid of a cylinder laying on its side simply proves the point. Maybe we shouldn’t really go any lighter with cylinders and anyway there are those nasty Road Transportation requirements. The answer lies in the weight, volume quantity parallel universe thing. As a result there have been some rather odd design volumes in the past. A cylinder that held less propane than a Worthington yet managed to be heavier was one example but there were successes of course. If you could afford them, or now find them secondhand, there is always the titanium jobbies but really the trusty Worthington still remains a firm favourite with the CB599 and the 60 litre (V30 type) fatties, if you can face handling them, running a close second and third but as age encroaches and the need to fly a 105 fades into the distant past I reckon Worthies are going to be my choice for the future. For the time being I tend to fly with a pair of 60 litre cylinders which gives me more room in the basket than four Worthies. One recent anomaly was the introduction by Camerons of an adaptor to get over the problem of fitting cheaper Omeca pressure relief valves to T&C cylinders. They came up with a brass fitting that weighed twice that of the PRV. The only reason that the Omeca won’t fit is that it bottoms out in the housing. Drill out the bottom washer and the problem is solved. Sorry, silly me, that would mean less weight and they couldn’t flog the adaptors which as it happens are twice the price of the PRV, well short of their scrap value.
And (I hate using that at the start of a sentence) that’s another thing, baskets. Top of the pile once more comes Thunder&Colt. They made a swept top solid floor basket 40x48 (in old money) that was a pleasure to fly with. It was very well padded around the top, looked after and Danish oiled it had so much give you felt that you were incredibly well protected in the heaviest landing or longest drag. Since those days solid floors, like the canes, have got thicker and steel frames abound. I’ll grant you could probably ram raid PC World in a Lindstrand basket but boy is it heavy! As for the lightweight baskets, Camerons folding one is probably as heavy as a comparable wicker one and the Tekno basket, unless you’ve actually tried one, doesn’t fill you with confidence at first look but it may well be the future when it comes to lightweight baskets, and it folds up for storage. In the meantime top prize for modern baskets ought to go to the Concept open-weave type. You just need to put some cordura over the open-weave bits to stop your glasses, radio, maps and lucky gonk falling out when you arrive back on terra-firma.
Lastly but not leastly there is personal weight. Well not your weight of course, although I am tending towards the idea of loosing a few pounds to help my ageing hopper, but the paraphernalia you struggle into the air with. Granted we need a fire extinguisher, a drop line, possibly a first aid kit, maps, gloves and a striker and I’ll begrudgingly admit to a phone and, if really necessary, a radio but do we really need all those maps, spare shoes, dental floss, overhaul kit for the burner, computer, grandfather clock and multipurpose knife cum chainsaw or a bag they wouldn’t allow as hand luggage on a Ryanair flight to Dublin to carry what won’t go into the cylinder jacket pockets or basket tidy? How about you tip your flight bag out if you must keep it and trolley what you don’t need for the flight in question? If it’s a life thing then get a plastic bin from Poundsaver and chuck it all in there and leave it in the trailer. When you are flying in Norfolk, the wind is five knots and you have gas for two hours, having maps for Todi going back to 1998 stuffed down the cylinder jackets along with a collection of markers you’ve failed to return over the years, expired batteries and broken straps is rather pointless. We’ve cleaned out enough stuff from some baskets exceeding the weight of a small child. Cut all but one pocket off the cylinders and give the basket tidy to the BBM&L Luncheon raffle, checking for loose change first. After take-off, instead of taking the quick release with, if you get the chance, lob it out with a cry of “Quick release coming down”. It’ll make your crew run about and make them pay more attention. Floor padding is another thing. Use lightweight padding not sheets of rubber found in stables like some we heave out of baskets during inspections. We have one such example that we confiscated for being outrageously heavy, it was impregnated with filings to make it even more hardwearing. The owner now gets and additional ten minutes per cylinder and we haven’t had to replace the temp tag this year. I was forgetting the pole and envelope bags. Make yourself up a lightweight bag to stick the envelope in and just take that with you, its easy enough to roll the lighter bag, contents and all, into the envelope bag proper when the crew finally trot up.
Maybe at the end of all this is the reassuring thing that Ultramagic have launched (pardon the pun) a Teckno (or however you splilt it) 70 to accommodate the more portly pilot but, and this is the thing they’ve even produced a bigger basket to go with it that also folds away should you so wish and both Camerons and Lindstrands have picked up a few orders for lightweight envelopes. So, that’s it in a nutshell, straight from the ‘eart. Let’s get lightweight or rather, lets try and get the manufacturers to understand that light would be very nice thankyou. Write a note to your local manufacturer. Dear Don, Why is your new burner so much heavier than its predecessor? Dear Simon, Do you manufacture a basket under 100kgs? Dear Carles, Any chance you could make lightweight envelopes as standard? Dear Mr Bonanno, Please, please come up with a very simple lightweight burner. Interchange the message as necessary. Thunder Balloons, we miss you. Ah! that’s better, a huge weight off me mind.
Now here’s an interesting thing, of all the manufacturers the only one that comes clean with weights is Lindstrands. Check out their Flight Manual currently at Issue 1.44. Go to Section 1.5, don’t worry you can download it free from their lovely website, and there before your very eyes are all the main manufacturers’ vitals. Brahma.
Starting with stock production envelopes then. A Cameron Viva 77 is about 85kg, a Lindstrand 77A about 84kg and an Ultramagic Teckno 70 (admittedly smaller) comes in at 70kg. All the manufacturers will build lightweight envelopes but you have to get a quote and their estimated finished weight isn’t always that spot on. The best ever envelope was the lovely Cameron ‘O’ series. They were the one design that Cameron balloons should have kept going. At 12 gores they looked good and were (are) one of the easiest to repair if you accidentally take out a fist full of lower panels. Then again they only came in at 90kg which is admittedly a bit steep but imagine an O-77 in lightweight fabric, that would be a winner. Do we get any commission? With Don at the helm? Highly unlikely.
Burners are really surprising. Camerons claim all their current ones are 25kg. They’re not but some might be. The old Mark 4 single is 17kg and the Mark 4 super double 24kg. We hung one off our calibrated grab-tester and were amazed that it was heavier than a Sirocco. Camerons wouldn’t tell us how much a single Sophie Safire weighs or even if it is available as a single which it probably isn’t as they promote it for use in ride balloons where extra weight clearly doesn’t matter! The superb Lindstrand Jetstream single is 17kg (my fave) and offers an awful lot with the equally great double which I also now, finally, have, a reasonably respectable 22kg. Complicated, but undeniably lighter at 11.9kg, is the Ultramagic Bonnano Tekno single with the refreshingly simple but awkward daddy-long-legs framed Ultramagic Mk21 double 20kg, mostly as result of the ludicrous block. If you want a good burner and less weight then the old C2 single (the best burner ever) is 13kg and the double 17kg. Love them like you would a Worthy. Must have a word about T-shirts methinks.
Cylinders are much of a muchness but top scorer is the Lindstrand V30 which offers 60 useable litres for a total full weight of 48kg. Yes I know the piccie has an Ultramagic strap but it is a Lindstrand V30 honest guv. Sky and T&C V30s with the same full weight have 55 litres useable. The equivalent Cameron 60 litre cylinder, a CB426 offer 55 litres useable for a full weight of 50kg. Dropping down in size the Cameron CB599 manages 41 litres useable for a full weight of 40kg which is OK but the trusty Worthington provides around 38 litres from a full weight of 33 kilos. These figures may vary depending on the fittings used of course and the total weight will be more for a master so treat them as a guide only.
Baskets, oh baskets. Frankly the figures do vary depending on the cane used so the weights given are rather general as is the cane from which they are made. We took the popular Linstrand 1.55x1.10 as the standard which came in at around 88kg. The similar sized Cameron CB300-3A and 4As clock up between 65-80kg with the Ultramagic 110x130 a healthy 76kg. The lightweight Ultramagic Tekno basket at 1.20x1.00 is 49kg. Their standard 1.10x1.30 basket is about 76kg. As far as older baskets go the old T&C 40x48 wins hands down at around 50-55kg.
Come on chaps and chapesses. Tear up the rule book and make your balloon lighter. Dear old Mike Scholes binned his crownline as it provided four more litres of fuel and at a litre a minute that is something to think about, especially if you start chucking other stuff out the little bits turn into big bits. Good on you John Till for your thoughts on upgrading. Last time around it was ‘Love your Worthie’ now its 'Love it lightweight’.
Dedicated to Jack Klein, truly a leader when it came to designing light-weight balloons.