Cost Effective Training
Airborne Industries has been supplying Parachute Training Balloons to the Belgian Parachute Training School in Schaffen since the 1970s. There are three nations who currently utilise balloons for parachute training. Belgium, Thailand and South Korea. The school uses the balloons for each paratrooper’s first two jumps before they move onto the aircraft, save considerably in costs. Also, due to having the balloon, they are able to offer parachute training to other groups to whom it would otherwise be unrealistic to train.
This training, known as a Level B course, is open to members of the Belgium Army who wish to come and learn parachute skills. The Belgian Academy of Officers also comes to Schaffen once a year to undertake this Level B course. The training comprises a week’s ground school followed by four jumps from the balloon.
Youth Training Program
Because of the inexpensive cost of operating a balloon, the school is able to organise an enterprising course for young people each year. The scheme is open to those over 16 years old and both girls and boys are invited to apply. An equal number of each are enrolled on a two week Para course in the summer holidays and they follow the regular ground training programme in week one, and then finish the course by undertaking four jumps from the balloon. “Recruitment is always an issue for us in the armed forces in Belgium and we find that this course helps young people engage with us and illustrates to them what the armed forces here can offer them,” explains Potloot.
Parachute Training Balloon Operation
Para recruits undertake their first two jumps from the balloon at a height of 1000 feet. The balloon is inflated with helium and can be used for jumping in conditions up to 16 knots, although removal from the hanger in side winds over 12 knots can be tricky. The balloon is also fitted with a transponder which automatically activates if the balloon ‘escapes’ and reaches a height of 2500 feet, thus alerting local air traffic control of its presence.
The balloon gondola, also supplied by Airborne Industries can take three soldiers when fully kitted, in addition to the jumpmaster. If carrying the school children it can take five or six. The balloon is secured by a single cable, which is replaced after 3000 jump cycles. The whole fits nicely into its own hangar, inflated, and is simply brought out when needed. Occasional helium top-ups are required, especially in colder weather but the system is exceptionally cheap to operate.
The balloon can be operated in a maximum wind of 16 knots, pretty much the same as the limit for jumping from an aircraft. In fact, getting it out of the hangar on a windy day is to most tricky part. There are side wind limits of 12 knots. Using balloons for parachute training has always been a part of life at Schaffen, since the school opened in 1947 and Airborne Industries has been an integral and reliable part of that process for the past 40 years.
“To us the use of the balloon makes obvious sense. The cost of using the ballon is a fraction of the cost of using an aircraft. For every six Euros spent on balloon training we would pay 300 Euros for using an aircraft. Also, the balloon is housed here, it is central, easily accessible and allows everyone to come here for the training.”