Balloonists Locked in Tight Race Across America

As of this writing, it’s been more than 38 hours since eight teams took off on their gas balloon journey across America. They launched on 7th October 2017, Saturday around 9 PM, from Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  One team has landed. The teams have spent two cold nights in an open basket and are scattered across four states in the Midwest, but in terms of distance, it seems to be a tight contest for the first three positions.

The leaders have been clocking a blistering pace across the country at 50 mph (70 kph).

The Swiss duo of Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz (Team 6), have covered 1138

The oldest form of flight–balloon and the basket–fascinates many people. Philip Bryant and Mike Emich taking off in America’s Challenge 2016 Photo courtesy: Kim Vesely.

miles and are flying over Wisconsin toward the Great Lakes. Though defending champions Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo of the U.S. (Team 1) are flying close to Rockford, between Illinois and Wisconsin, they have covered 1124 miles! In this race, U.S. (Team 1) has also snatched the lead from the Swiss duo (Team 6), who in turn regained the lead, overnight. The other six teams have also been separated by 15 miles to 100 miles at different points in the race!

This morning, the Command Center received word that Team 7, the USA’s Noah Forden and Bert Padelt, made a safe landing about 7:30 AM MDT (1330Z) near Ogden, IA, just west of Ames.

The America’s Challenge is a cross country gas balloon race in its 22nd year.  One of the challenges for balloon pilots and their meteorologists (who work from the ground) is to find the best wind track to fly as far as possible, without stopping. Whoever flies the longest (straight) distance from the launch point, wins.

Gas balloon pilots plot their next moves based on input from air traffic control, their meteorologists, and the ground support team.   During day, the gas warms up, and the balloons rise higher. The challenge for each team is to find the fastest weather highway that will lead them ahead of the competitors. Safety is the main concern and teams avoid harsh weather. Balloons cannot be steered, but pilots change direction by changing altitude to find a favorable wind current.

Each team has two balloon pilots. They sit and “sleep” in an open wicker basket about 5 feet by 3.5 feet. (Baskets are also made of other light-weight materials). Overhead is their aircraft — a 1000 cubic meters (37,000 cubic feet) conductive fabric sphere filled with hydrogen gas. It is capable of lifting the basket, its two passengers, instruments, sand bags used as ballast, and other essentials, and can stay aloft for days.

Before launch, the teams checked their equipment and inflated the balloon with hydrogen. Thousands of people witnessed this year’s launch of the gas balloons. Before the launch, each balloon is “weighed off” to make sure it is buoyant and will safely clear the field.  Each balloon with their pilots are “walked” to the platform, so that they take off from the same spot, and in keeping with the tradition, the national anthem of each team’s country is played as they launch.

Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke are four-time winners. Photo courtesy Kim Vesely, America’s Challenge 2016

Once the balloons are aloft, it is interesting to watch how the pilots and their weather person develop strategies to be on the fastest wind track. Of course, safety is the main concern.

Even though ballooning technology has improved considerably and communication is advanced, the race remains a real flying adventure. It tests the pilots’ endurance and skills as they fly nonstop at high altitudes for days and nights, often over remote areas and large water transits, harnessing the wind.

This year, America’s Challenge promises a nail-biting finish! Good luck to all the teams for a safe and pleasant race across the skies.

Please see live tracking website at  http://www.balloonfiesta.com/gas-balloons/gas-tracking

or on the Balloon Fiesta free apps for Android and iPhone.

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