OCT. 6-14 2018

Navigator News

Feb 8, 2017

So You Want To Be A Zebra

Launch Director Team Openings

People often ask about how to become a Launch Director (Zebra). Because these Navigators, like all of the AIBF flight officials teams, are responsible for flight safety, selection is tough and prerequisites are demanded. Also, positions rarely become available. But this year, the LDs are looking for Zebras-in-Training (ZITs)!

Have you thought about becoming a Zebra? The following interview with Bill Brennan, Chief Launch Director, explains the basic information you need to know about the demands and requirements.  At the end of the article, you’ll find instructions about how to apply. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get the “thumbs up!”

What do Launch Directors do?

A Launch Director is the first person of contact for the pilots and crews on the field. In their black and white attire LDs, aka Zebras, are rather prominent ambassadors of Fiesta. The LDs work with the pilots to conduct a Safe Coordinated Launch. Even well before daylight, the LDs walk their rows to greet pilots and crews. They remind the pilots about the 3 Row Rule. During inflations, the LDs look for proper tie offs and anything out of the ordinary. The flight operations kick off when the Balloon of the Day launches as the National Anthem is played from the stage. At the conclusion of the anthem, the LDs are able to start launching the first wave. Each LD has a conversation with the pilot about the launch. The discussion may include overhead traffic, layers of wind, false lift warnings, and other topics necessary for a successful launch. The Launch Card (chit) is collected and then the LD clears the spectators down wind and reestablishes eye contact with the pilot. When the airspace above the balloon is clear the LD blows the whistle and gives thumbs up for launch. The LD stays in position until the balloon is above head level and in controlled flight. The LD waves or salutes while wishing a safe flight for the pilot and crew. LDs take this time to observe the balloon’s flight to be prepared for the next launch. Then it is on to the next balloon to repeat the launch process. After all the balloons are launched we shift our hats to become Landing Assistants. When the permission is granted to allow landings on the launch field, the LDs help the incoming balloons land safely until balloon crews arrive.

During the glows, we provide contact with the pilots, check tie offs, collect chits and help with lost parents.

What kind of training is involved?

A new LD is a Zebra-in-Training (ZIT). There are two mandatory two hour training sessions that go over the knowledge necessary to be an LD. We cover topics such as communications, emergency response actions, and attitude to name a few. We also have the ZIT work with a pilot and live burners to role-play various scenarios. All ZITs are required to participate in each session. Each year there is a 3 hour refresher session that all LDs must attend. We touch base on expectations and changes for Balloon Fiesta.

What do you look for in applicants?

We look for crewing experience. The applicant needs to be familiar with balloon systems and how they operate. Next we look at attitude. That is to say someone must be coachable and willing to take direction. People skills are very important. Finally, we look at enthusiasm towards the event and a deep desire to serve the ballooning community. This is not an easy position. It is one of great responsibility as safety is paramount. LDs need to be able to anticipate situations and take the appropriate course of action. An LD will walk/run several miles each morning. There is a lot of time standing waiting to start and then at the end waiting for landings. We look for a three year commitment.

Tell us about the make-up of your team.

We need 56 to 58 trained LDs to conduct launches and support the glows. An LD is considered trained by their 3rd year. Typically we will have 4 to 5 ZITs each year to replace those who have retired or are not invited back. The actual number of all LDs usually varies between 60 to 65. We have many LDs that have been doing this for over 20 years. We have a few over the 30 year mark.

What’s the “culture” like inside your team?

SAFE COORDINATED LAUNCH is our culture. And we have a darn good time doing it!

We come from all kinds of backgrounds to form a cohesive unit dedicated to a safe event. We have a variety of different “looks,” just as no two real zebras have the same stripes.

Because we are so visible, we are constantly asked questions. The most fun interactions are with first-time visitors. Their enthusiasm is great and we are willing to share whatever information to help them enjoy the event.

Who is your leadership team?

We have a Chief and an Assistant Chief that lead the team. They attend the Official’s Briefing before each event. They then pass it on the information during the LD’s Briefing. The LDs are also divided into North and South sections. Each section has a leader and an assistant. They execute the directions sent to them from the tower. During the year, the chief and section leads, along with their assistants, meet to plan out the team’s roster, update training briefings, and plan out the event. They also meet with the other officials from Safety, Weather, and Land Owner Relations teams, as well as the Balloonmeister and the Assistant Balloonmeister. 

Zebras are an awesome group who work and play hard. Launch directing is not for everyone, but the few people that are up to the challenge enjoy being on a fantastic team.     

If you would like to be considered for the Zebra-in-Training program, the application can be found at Launch Director Application


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