Balloon Repair Station

Its in the red – Identifying damage and saving money.

Very large ride balloon pilot. I suppose I could have put that better. Try again. Pilot of a very large ride balloon calls us. “Hi matey, wind changed on the way in and the envelope snagged a tree and got a tear. Can you repair it tomorrow as we are flying Thursday?” Usual gentle patient reply as to the location of aforementioned damage from us followed. “Do you know where it is?” Pilot, “Yup there is only the one L-shaped tear and its in the red about half way up I think.” Thing is that such responses, like many others, said without thought, get written on the blackboard. Well, when it arrived and was duly pulled out it took over an hour to find it and typically it was in the last gore we looked at. Invariably when this happens it often results in two hours of panel by panelling costing the owner or operator (and John) much angst, and normally a bottle or two of Talisker on collection. Truly professional pilots will avoid damaging artwork, ensure the hole or damage, if half way up the balloon, is close to a turning vent and restrict burns to the mouth to the first panel above the nomex. They also turn up with biscuits or cake. They never have any idea where the damage is. Crew might though.

The point of this is to give you a tip or two of how to avoid additional and unnecessary expense when it comes to having broken, shredded or torn stuff mended. Contrary to urban myth we, like others, in extreme cases, do charge for searching for that missing hole, and depending on size, that can take some considerable time. I have to say we don’t enjoy the process anymore than the frustrated crew sent to sort the problem. If you don’t know where it is then there is no point in aimlessly pulling and dragging the envelope randomly about in the hope you might find the damage. Face up to it, you are going to have to go panel by panel and you never know you may just strike lucky, finding it in the first gore you go up.

Its all remarkably simple really. Envelopes are made of panels sewn into gores. Loadtapes are there to hold it all together, and whilst we are on loadtapes here is a tip. If you run out of field on a windy landing and your pride and joy is stuck mainly in a tree and hanging by a loadtape surrounded by shredded panels, cut the loadtape and don’t bother trying to lift the balloon off. Its all a matter of degrees. When you got your balloon you probably had a Maintenance Manual which you studied thoroughly. In that it tells you that a loadtape can be repaired. Often it is easier and alot cheaper to repair a loadtape than replace 20 trollied panels as the Fire Brigade turned the problem into a training exercise and gallantly got Simon Snorkel to lift the deflated old girl off. Anyway, where was I?

After encountering an object hell bent on causing tears and mayhem, or setting fire to the mouth, the pilot will declare that the crew weren’t there when he landed, it was the Met forecast or the gimbal was loose (merely a few of many excuses quoted by pilots who simply got it wrong) singularly or worse, in the case of an unspotted barbed wire fence, you now have a wholly, holy, holey envelope. What is the best thing to do before buying everyone a pint? Locate the damage. Right. Now. Ready? Find a pen and paper. Back of an OS map will do and will be a reminder for the future as to where the ‘then there was this tree’ incident took place.! We draw up a grid of the panels and mark them as we go but written stuff is just as good. If you can, and there is sufficient structural envelope left, then a hot inflation may well show up any missed damage. Most importantly, don’t forget the parachute, it isn’t immune. In the vast majority of cases the actual rigging doesn’t get damaged but it is still important to check. Thing is that you need to get the pain over as soon as possible. If you can’t do it at the time then do it at the first opportunity. Providing it’s still light after the emergency services have departed, you have pulled your envelope off the fence posts, the pub will still open and the farmer isn’t leaping up and down, get a pen and paper and do a panel by panel if needed. You’ll thank yourself. All balloons, well most actually, have numbers on the bottom of the load tape by the mouth. Thunder and Colt had them at the top (sometimes). If the panel numbers are unclear, or there are none, mark a loadtape at the mouth, or parachute edge, with a Biro, a small cross will do, or tie something round it. Note which way you went with the panel by panel, as in left or right looking up or down the balloon accordingly. Some envelopes have what are known as ‘split panels’, like Cameron N-types and Ultramagic. This means that between number one and number two the gore splits into two, we refer to them as split panels (never would have guessed). When numbering a chart or recording the gore it is therefore one to one and a half then, one and a half to two, and so on, depending which gore you are on. Convention states that the nomex doesn’t count so one panel up is the first above the nomex. If you forget this just try and write down whether the nomex panel is included or not. Some ride balloons have two rows of nomex but that is just confusing, pretencious and points to the pilots likely inaccuracy with the burner. If the nomex is largely missing then just write down nomex mullered.

If the hole or damage is clearly visible and you know for certain that it is the only damage then follow the gore down to the mouth counting the panels as you go and note the numbers each side of the gore. You will end up with something like ‘three up – tapes 11 and 12. Of course if you go down if its near the top and record ‘four down 8+9’.  If you don’t we will decide it isn’t but will always give the benefit of doubt. If it is a teeny tiny hole spotted on inflation try and be explicit as to where it is in the panel. If practical a knot can be tied in using flaying fabric or you could use a tank strap.

Barbed wire and a mouse attacks are the worst. Sadly you must do a panel by panel inspection. Mice tend to build mouse houses and will get into an envelope through the top, burrow down the side and head inside thus munching their way through several layers. Bummer. Both types of damage can be hard to spot without a serious panel by panel. Two, preferably three, understanding friends are required, the third to do the writing. Pens at the ready. Start at the bottom on two known numbered tapes. Stretch the panel between you and work up the envelope in unison. It is important to stretch the panel fully out, be it ripstop or hyperlast, creases can appear to be cuts so look closely at anything that catches your eye and don’t forget to look along the edges of both horizontal and vertical load tapes. If you find damage, note it counting the panels up from the bottom and describe where it is in the panel. It may be near the tape or smack bang in the middle. We tend to favour a three sided repair if it is more like a tear or rip as this can be quicker than a four-sided patch.

In the case of barbed wire damage then this can often be repaired with a double-sided patch sewn round, if it is teeny tiny a sticky patch on both sides may suffice (refer to your Maintenance Manual). Sticky patches do not work on hyperlast. Snags on barbed wire, or oil seed rape stems, often result in a graze or scratch. These can seriously weaken the fabric without a properly visible hole or tear but be assured a very close inspection should always made of any such damage. Snagged or pulled stitching is also common with barbed wire or thorny bushes or crop stems. This can sometimes be pulled out with a bit of a sharp tug. The more accurate you can be the more you will save. Bear in mind that damage to a loadtape, in the main, will require a repair so note that.

Now we have to mention ‘burn damage to the mouth’ syndrome. The crew is more often than not held responsible for this. Pilots seem to conveniently forget that it is their hand on the burner but, putting that to one side, let’s move in. Inversions that were applauded at take-off are oft forgotten as a hurried landing is made. Quite often this means that the mouth takes a bit of a beating and as a result of adrenalin and a good story later, the ensuing damage isn’t even noticed until the next outing. Likewise the urge to get into the air in somewhat ‘marginal’ conditions can also be result in a smokey exit. Problem is that if you set fire to the nylon on inflation, or aim the burner up the side of the envelope the fan will help you whizz lumps of molten nylon further into the balloon. If you are lucky they will cool on contact and can be plucked off but often this can result in further drama and burnt ‘fag end’ sized holes. We gauge nomex damage as discoloured, which normally is only cosmetic. Burnt, which means that it can be debatable and, provided it does’nt tear then it may only require a patch, and finally Pompadom, which means its truly trollied. In some cases, and according to the Maintenance Manual, loadtapes that get singed or damaged may have to be replaced. There is also something else to consider with mouth damage, which is often overlooked, and that is damage to the flying wires. Heat will damage them. As a simple test, if they have gone blue they may need replacing, if they are black they will almost certainly need replacing. To test the wire take a 300mm suspect section between finger and thumb at each end of the suspected damage. Bend the wire so that the ends of the section that you are holding touch each other. Release the wire and allow the tested section to hang vertically. If the wire does not hang straight and has taken up a permanent bend at the test point, sorry but its done for.

Scoops invariably suffer one way or the other. If there is no damage to the balloon then the easiest thing to do is take it off and post it to your chosen repairer. There is no problem flying the balloon without the scoop providing its reasonably calm. Most scoops are held on by quicklinks. These are small oval clips with screwgates on them, unlike karabiners they don’t swing open. Most envelopes only have the attachment loops sewn on where the actual scoop goes but some have them all the way round. Just to be sure put a bit of tape round the first one before you undo the quicklink. You may need a pair of pliers to do this as they can get quite tight. Keep the links somewhere very safe. Then wrap it up and put it in the post. Scoops can use a lot of nomex and nomex isn’t cheap so there may come a point when the state of the scoop plus the degree of damage may make replacement a cheaper option. A secondhand one may be an option or you may be able to source some recycled fabric from Pete Bish at Zebedee. When you get your mended scoop back refit it ensuring any load tapes are on the outside. If you’ve forgotten how it goes on then fold it in half. Find the centre gores between the bottom sets of flying wires and you’re in business. Ensure you do the links up good and tight. A screwdriver against the pliers can help.

A bit of information is better than none so don’t despair if you get it marginally wrong. When someone gives us a panel and gore number we automatically think it maybe a row or gore (or two) out so if we don’t find it at first shot we will look to the right and left and up and down. Reference to a colour, turning vent or registration can also help if you are in a hurry to escape the field or it is too windy and raining to panel by panel it. We fully accept the excuse that the pub was stopping food at nine! What a nice pilot (or they were out-voted).

Now finally here is something that will save a lot of time and money especially if the damage is singular or localised. The way you pack it away. If the damage is no more than three-quarters the way up the balloon then pack it normally. If its in the top, pack it mouth first. Especially with larger balloons, when the damage is in the middle of the  envelope, it may have to be opened to get to the repair so it doesn’t really matter which way it gets packed. There is an exception though, like when you know that the damage is really bad, as in you know because you have to put the bits back in the bag. No point in upsetting yourself any further. This will be an insurance claim for sure. Stuff it all back best you can and leave it to the repairers. There will, no doubt, be a lot missing, tangled broken tapes and loose material that cannot be identified. This is where it needs to be carefully laid out and the extent of the damage unravelled first then recorded. It can take ages. Watching or helping will not improve your state of mind!

There you go then. Simple rule is try to identify where the damage is in relation to load tapes numbers and add additional information such as ‘by the vertical loadtape’. If that fails go for the turning vent or registration position. Bear in mind that if it isn’t found reasonably quickly then the repairers will just go to ‘panel by panel’ starting in the ‘thought of’ area. If the balloon is left with no idea of where the damage is then expect to pay two blokes (blokesses) to find it on an hourly rate. Nearly finally, don’t forget the logbook. Any repairs must be signed off before the balloon can be returned to service. And truly finally. Did we mention the Talisker effect? Probably! (o: