Submitted By Tom Tomasetti
It was late evening on July 17th when I left Lancaster, PA heading for Raleigh. I made it a few hours down the road when I decided a power nap might be in order. Shortly after Baltimore I found an inviting rest area where I laid the seat back for 15 minutes. Refreshed, I trucked on through DC and Arlington, VA. I then realized that I only had one eye open, and using that one eye, I found another rest stop. OK, another power nap and I’d be good to go. Two hours later I awoke. That break got me through Petersburg, VA. Another rest area and one hour snooze was enough to get me home.
What’s the deal? I’d made the trip up to Lancaster 5 days earlier and it was a pretty easy drive even though my GPS routed me through DC and all of its sites and took me right to the Baltimore Oriels Stadium a mere 30 minutes before the start of a Saturday night game. I had no idea there were that many Oriel fans. The drive took a little longer than expected, but I still arrived in Lancaster bright eyed and bushy tailed.
What did I do that week that wore me out? Ah yes, BALLOON CAMP. Somehow I had been selected as one of the five pilot/counselors at the 2014 Great Eastern Balloon Camp. I know that all of you have read the articles written by some of these future aeronauts in Ballooning, and on line, talking about their experiences at camp. They used adjectives like “wonderful”, “educational”, and “enlightening”. I couldn’t agree more. But now, I’d like to share the experience from the perspective of one of the adults, and to give you an idea of what balloon camp is really all about.
There were 2 camps held in 2014, each with 20 campers. The first was the Dubuque (IA) Balloon Camp held in June, followed by The Great Eastern Balloon Camp (Lancaster, PA) in July. All of my comments will be related to the Great Eastern, but the goals and formats of both camps were essentially the same.
Our Camp Director, Gene Burnstein, assembled an outstanding team of adults to guide and supervise our 20 campers. A few of these adults had the experience of previous balloon camps, but most of us were first timers. The campers, 13 young men and 7 young ladies, were broken up into 5 groups of 4. Each group was led by one pilot/counselor and one counselor. The counselors were not necessarily non-pilots. Some were pilots but just didn’t have balloons at camp while some were experienced crew. My “co-counsellor” had very little balloon experience, but he had a wonderful attitude and doubled as the camp photographer. Gene laid down the rules right from the start: Rule Number One: It’s all about the kids. The rest of the rules: Always remember Rule Number One.
The Great Eastern camp was hosted by Millersville University near Lancaster, PA. The 2015 will be held there as well. This was a terrific choice as this is where Dr. Richard Clark, the guru of RUC winds, teaches, and they do have their own balloon. Our lodging was in one of the older dorms. This was perhaps due to the shoe string budget that our camps work under. Almost all of the operational funds for the camps are donated. Most of the tuition of the twenty campers goes directly to the university to pay for the room and board of the campers and those counselors who stayed on campus. All of the other expenses (books, pilot packs, speakers, propane, additional meals, etc.) are over and above the tuitions. In many cases, the campers receive scholarships to pay their tuition, but the families of non-scholarship campers have to foot the $425 bill themselves. Everyone, including the staff, pays their own travel expenses to and from the camp.
The rooms were satisfactory, especially when you figure that we didn’t see too much of them. Sleep deprivation was the rule. The campers slept two to a room, while the counselors had individual rooms. The beds were steel frame with a thin mattress. The male campers and counselors occupied the second floor and the females were on the third. The bathrooms were communal with individual shower and water closet stalls. The basement of the dorm was our classroom. The dining hall was top notch with choices galore.
Sunday, the first day of camp, began with the adults making up pilot packs and preparing for the camper’s arrival. The campers began arriving by early afternoon. They checked in and moved their gear into their assigned rooms. We then had an “ice breaker game”. Each person (adults included) had previously submitted a couple of facts about themselves. These were printed on a sheet of paper and everyone had to go to everyone else to ascertain who belonged to each fact.
Following the ice breaker, we jumped right into the Master Briefing, Crew Safety (each camper received “Crewing Essentials”), and the first of many weather segments. Then off to the dining hall for dinner. After dinner, the pilots set up their baskets on the launch field. The campers had to go to each basket (system) and identify a list of about 30 items inside each basket (drop line, fire extinguisher, registration, etc.). Then back inside for the second of the many weather segments. Lights were out at 10.
Monday, Day 2. Sunrise was 5:45 so we were up at 4:30! Off to the launch field where we (campers and pilots) put up (tethered) 2 full sized balloons and a hopper. The campers rotated from system to system. I focused on giving the campers burner time. I put 2 campers in at a time. One observed while the other lifted off, held near the top of the tether and then landed. Then the “pilot” camper was replaced with a new “observer” and the previous observer took the balloon up. Only about half of the campers rotated to my system but I was able to give burner time to every youngster who came. With all hands on deck, we packed up the balloons, then headed for breakfast.
After breakfast, it was back to the class room where we handed out logbooks and went over how to fill them out. I taught a segment on Pibals and Compasses which was followed by a section on Balloon Systems including flight manuals and weight calculations. Jon Radowski taught a great segment on Part 61 (getting your license) and competition. Then, we walked to the dining hall for lunch. Think about it. This would be a big morning for any of us.
Now it’s off to the parking lot for Fire Training, back to the classroom for First Aid (each attendee received a very nice first aid kit), followed by GPS intro and then dinner. After dinner we covered Pilot Decision Making and Breaking the Accident (Error) chain. But, we’re not done yet. We still need to talk about tomorrow’s forecast. It looked like rain.
Tuesday, Day 3, greets everyone with a note on the bathroom door, “Rain, sleep until 6”. Yes, there is a God. We ate breakfast in the classroom instead of the dining hall, followed by segments on the Phonetic Alphabet, Knots, and a basket display. Next, we made a picnic lunch and, as the drizzle was on and off, we chilled with a baggie toss. We loaded the chase vans with campers and headed off to Nick Moehlmann’s repair station where some got to sew and pull test fabric. There was absolutely tons of stuff to see and do there. By this time, the rain had stopped again so we cold packed the hopper and Nick gave us an example of an envelope inspection.
Back to Millersville for dinner and more weather training. The campers analyzed the weather forecast for a tether that evening and determined that it was doubtful. We all made our way to the field and sure enough, it started sprinkling again. Then, back to the classroom to start forecasting the morning conditions and supposedly, off to bed. What really happened was the kids grouped up and started running forecasts. I had 4 or so in my room running the RUC tool with me.
Wednesday, Day 4. By this time, I was starting to feel my age. When all of us go to races, we get up at 4:30 and hit the sack at 10, but there’s usually a midday nap. Not so at camp. Thoughts of hitting the snooze button were dashed when I opened an eye to find a room full of little weather geeks sitting at my computer. Down to the classroom where individual groups of campers gave their forecasts for the morning. The adults then commented on and critiqued their findings. Off to the athletic field to put up 3 balloons and the hopper. I chose not to put up my 105 due to the field size. My crown line camper would have been half way down a steep embankment. But that’s OK, I had my group observe and discuss each of the other balloon pilot’s inflation techniques. Most of the campers got to fly the tethered hopper. Then, pack up and back to the dining hall for breakfast, followed by a Powerline Safety demonstration (crispy hot dogs and all), logbooks, and group pictures. I gave a presentation on Land Owner Relations.
Lunch was followed by a short hike to one of the real classrooms where we enjoyed a serious weather presentation given by one of Dr. Clark’s associate professors. Well, some enjoyed and some endured. It was way over the heads of many, but a few, especially the older campers, hung on every word. We returned to our classroom for a Pilot Decision Making Game. This activity blew me away. Stacks of small cards were laid out on a table, each with a label like “Pilot”, “Aircraft”, “Weather”, “Passengers”, “Flying Area”, etc. Within the stacks were various conditions. The Aircraft stack might have had cards reading “New Cameron 105” of “Head 77 with 500 hours”. The Pilot stack might have contained cards like “You have a bad cold”, “You slept 8 hours last night”. Passengers might include “An elderly man with a cane” or “4 members of the school football team”. Each camper would select a card from each stack, analyze all of the given conditions, present the conditions to the group and determine if it was safe to fly or not. Personally, I considered this something akin to the “final exam”. Unfortunately, time constraints did not allow for us to hear from each camper as we still had Geocaching and the writing of Sponsor Thank You Cards before our pizza party. But, ever camper we did hear from was spot on. I was so proud of every one of them.
The day wasn’t over yet. While the youngsters singed the Thank You cards, the pilots drove to the field and inflated 3 balloons. The campers marched to the field to find that we had set up a balloon glow for them. We packed up the balloons and returned to the dorm where the campers began running the weather for the next morning.
Thursday, the last day. 4:30 AGAIN!!! The campers are showering and running the weather. We all go down to the classroom where the pilots receive their weather briefings FROM THE CAMPERS. These kids are GOOD!! Two of us set up our balloons for a little more burner time while 2 other pilots played a “What’s Wrong With This Picture…” game. Pack up and breakfast…again. Then back to the classroom to fill in and sign off logbooks and complete camp surveys and evaluations. Are we done yet? Nope, it’s time for a segment on Maps and Aeronautical charts. Four of the campers actually submitted their paperwork for Student Certificate.
The end is in sight. Lunch in the dining hall was followed by our Closing Ceremonies and Award Presentations (camper certificates and a special thank you to the Camp Director). It’s time to pack up our belongings, clear the dorm, greet the parents (assuring them that their children will recover) and say a lot of sad and sincere good byes.
My day wasn’t quite over yet. While at the repair station two days prior, Nick mentioned that he had a used system for sale. One of the campers bought it! So it was off to the airport to stand it up!! Now my day was over except for the drive home. Phewww…
Prior to Lancaster, I had no idea of what camp was like and what these wonderful young people go through. It was like going to a 5 day balloon race combined with a safety seminar on steroids. And now it’s time to start working on 2015. Actually, we’ve already started. We’ve already had 3 conference calls with this year’s staff and much of the schedule has been laid out. As of a couple of days ago, the western camp (Reno this year instead of Dubuque) has 12 campers signed up and Lancaster has 8. If you know of any future balloonist who might want to attend either camp this year, they should be encouraged to get their applications in sooner rather than later. I intentionally didn’t mention any specifics about the 2014 campers, but of the 20 in Lancaster, 3 were crew members of North Carolina pilots, another has been crewing with World Balloons for the past 3 years (now 16 he can finally drive the van), one crews for her father who boasts 7000 hours, and one had seen his very first balloon a month earlier.
What, if anything, can the rest of us do? First, I would appreciate it if each of you would take a few minutes and to go to http://www.bfacamps.com/ to learn more about the camps and then click on “Take the Pledge”. Do you have balloon trading cards? If you can spare 40 cards (20 for each camp) please bring them to the CBA safety seminar, or mail them to me. Do you, or the company you work for, have other balloon related items for the camper’s pilot packs? As an example, Energizer has pledged 40 LED Headlights (great for refueling after dark). Do you have or work with a printing company? We could certainly use copies of the Balloon Flying Handbook. Perhaps 4 different companies would donate 10 copies each.
Monetary donations, which are vitally important, can be made several ways. I will have a donation jar at the safety seminar. All monies collected in the jar will be sent to the BFA Youth Program and earmarked for the Lancaster camp. I believe the CBA will have a 50/50 drawing with the proceeds to be used for a scholarship. You may contribute on the BFA Camps website and receive the benefits of the BFA’s tax exempt status.
Please help us out. The more you can do, the more the youngsters will benefit.