Noah Forden, an aerospace engineer by profession, built his two-seater airplane in his garage and also built his third hot air balloon. He has been flying planes for 17 years and hot-air balloons for 26 years. Last October, Forden, flew to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) in his two-seater airplane and carried his cloud hopper balloon to fly in Albuquerque. A cloud hopper is different from a conventional hot-air balloon in that it does not have a basket. Instead, Forden sits in a harness, dangling his legs, with the propane tank on his back.
At the Fiesta, preparations were also on for America’s Challenge—a cross country gas balloon race scheduled to launch on October 5, 2016. The race was introduced by the Fiesta in 1995 to provide a consistent venue for gas ballooning and draws the world’s most skilled and adventurous pilots. Another race of its kind is the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup (or Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett), founded in 1906 and considered the world championships for distance gas ballooning. The Gordon Bennett Cup is usually held in Europe.
In these races, one of the challenges for the balloonists and their meteorologists (who work from the ground) is to find the best wind trajectory that would help them fly safely and achieve the farthest non-stop distance. Kim Vesely, spokesperson for America’s Challenge, says that in addition to each team’s meteorologist, the event also has a meteorologist. “Sophisticated weather data is used in the decision-making process about when to launch and the data is also supplied to pilots in advance,” says Vesely.
The Basket and the Balloon
Each team has two pilots who occupy a small open basket about 5 feet by 3.5 feet. Baskets are usually made of wicker or other lighter-weight materials, such as lightweight aluminum or a metal alloy with fabric or composite panels. Overhead is their aircraft — a 1000 cubic meters (37,000 cubic feet) conductive fabric sphere filled with hydrogen gas, capable of lifting the basket, its two passengers, instruments, and other paraphernalia, and staying aloft for days.
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. “I would not call them daredevils, but calculated risk takers, who enjoy the challenge, the adventure, the poetry, and aesthetics of the oldest form of manned flight,” says Vesely.
At the October 2016 Fiesta, six teams were scheduled for launch, but one team and a pilot dropped out for medical reasons. Bert Padelt, a gas balloon manufacturer, instructor, and pilot asked Forden to join him as his copilot. Forden had received his gas rating last February and had few hours of gas ballooning experience. “I could not understand why Bert chose me, especially when there were so many experienced gas balloonists present in Albuquerque. Maybe, he considered my experience with Air Traffic Control. I am very comfortable navigating in different types of air spaces and negotiating for passages,” said Forden. Nevertheless, he was thrilled and immediately agreed. “I spent two days running around to get some things that I needed, like helmet, warm clothing, water, food, and some emergency supplies.”
Barbara Fricke and her husband Peter Cuneo were taking part in their 18th America’s Challenge, having won three. In their previous races, their flight paths have taken them over Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, and in the Gordon Bennett Cup, they have flown over the North Sea, the Adriatic Sea, the English Channel,some distance over the Mediterranean, and twice over the Swiss Alps. Except for two races, the couple have always flown together. “In my first competition, I flew with someone else but then I decided to fly only with Barbara, and in 2002 when I was not available due to a family crisis, Barbara flew with someone else,” recalled Cuneo.
Theirs was the only non-wicker basket made from aluminum, fabric, and composite materials, which they built it themselves.
Philip Bryant and copilot Mike Emich were one team. Bryant, started his aviation career in 1963 flying airplanes and was also a flight instructor. In 1991, he took his first hot-air balloon ride and was so attracted to ballooning that he gave up flying airplanes. “While flying an airplane, you start with a key, and you fly; you don’t need anybody. But in ballooning you are working with so many people that you develop
wonderful friendships across all economy strata,” says Bryant. He enjoys the camaraderie in America’s Challenge and the gathering of like-minded pilots. “It’s the flight, the challenge, the wonder, and excitement that brings about a feeling of accomplishment. The joy in winning a trophy is only momentary,” he says. Bryant has also competed in the Gordon Bennett Cup, and won fifth place after an adventurous flight over the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains and an even more adventurous landing at night.
The Polish entry included Kryzsztof Zapart and Bazyli Dawidziuk and France was represented by Benoit Pelard and Laurent Lajoye.
Rules, Equipment, and Legitimate Airspaces
Races have rules for safety and other reasons, and this one is no exception. Balloon pilots cannot fly above 18,000 feet. “Air Traffic Control (ATC) provides a separation between you and the other aircraft,” says Bryant. In these races, the flying altitude is typically between 10,000 and 14,000 feet. Some mandatory instruments for the flight include the altimeter, variometer, altitude recording device, VHF radio, aircraft strobe light, beam light for night landing, GPS, transponders, emergency locator transmitter, and a tracker that transmits position, speed, and direction every five minutes, so that race organizers and the public can keep tabs on all the balloons via a website.
Since countries can choose to grant or deny permission for aviators (including balloonists) to cross into their airspace, it’s better to let go of wind tracks (however faster) that would take them in the prohibited territory. For example, Mexico has been closed for competition for many years. “But it is rarely a factor in the America’s Challenge,” says Vesely, “the teams almost never go to Mexico. The prevailing track is generally to the east and northeast.” And they cannot ditch in water for many reasons. “They have to land on land, or they may get disqualified,” she adds.
During the launch week, America’s Challenge meteorologist, Randy LeFevre briefed the pilots. The trajectories pointed flight paths into the Midwest, the Great Lakes region, and Canada and the launch scheduled for Wednesday, October 5th, was canceled as they would have encountered rain and strong thunderstorms during journeys over Kansas and Nebraska. Not only do meteorologists look for calm weather at the time of the launch, but also over the anticipated long balloon journeys.
Inflation and Launch
On October 6th, the teams inflated their balloons with hydrogen in the designated area of the field, prepared specifically for the purpose. “We have an area in the field that has ground rods in it to ground the trucks that dispense hydrogen to the balloons,” says Vesely. At these launches, it is customary to play the national anthems and relay a commentary; however, due to the late hour, they had to skip the procedure.
Crews accompanied their teams to the launch platforms and each team took off to an applause of enthusiastic spectators.
This was the first time, Forden was going to fly overnight or several nights in an open basket. As Forden was ready to take off, he shouted in excitement, “I’m really going to do this.” The ground and city lights moved farther away as they climbed, and in absence of moonlight, it became pitch black. They quickly deployed the aircraft lights below the basket to improve their visibility to other aircraft and followed protocol to contact Air Traffic Control.
The surface winds were out of north, so they were pushed toward the south, but they wanted to go north. “We started to climb to see if we could find a wind going north, but instead proceeded toward the east side of Albuquerque which has the large Sandia Mountains,” said Forden. “As we got closer to the mountain, we had to commit
to flying over it. We kept on dropping sand ballast to climb—the mountain is very large, dark, and foreboding, and it was very difficult to see. There are radio towers and antennas on top of the mountain, and a tramway with a cable, so we were concerned.” Thankfully, a friend had lent them state-of-the-art night vision goggles, (originally manufactured for use by the Army), which helped them see Sandia Peak clearly. They dropped 11 bags of sand ballast and were relieved to know that they had sufficient height to pass safely over Sandia Peak.
Cuneo agrees that flying in the darkness can be very challenging. “At night time, you lose your depth perception. It is hard to see how close or far the mountain is to you. It’s like looking at shadows on a screen, and you’re not quite sure whether you’re looking down at it, or is it higher up and closer, or at the same altitude as you,” says Cuneo, who has flown several times over the Sandia Mountains and twice over the Alps.
This time, though, Cuneo and Fricke stayed low and went around the north end of the Sandia Mountains. They waited it out over central New Mexico for the first few hours to catch a better and faster wind current later, that would push them toward the Midwest. “When our meteorologist tells us to do something we go with it, because he has been right every year and we have used him since 1998. His priority is always to get the balloon down safely,” says Cuneo. About three hours after takeoff, Cuneo e-mailed his crew “We’ve been in the air for two hours 45 minutes and we are still over Balloon Fiesta Park. What fun.”
Early on, there seemed to be two strategies but later the aeronauts picked trajectories in various directions.
Like Forden and Padelt, the Polish team of Kryzsztof Zapart and Bazyli Dawidziuk also flew high and fast over the Sandia Mountains and out toward the Texas panhandle.
Phillip Bryant and Mike Emich hung around for several hours in Albuquerque. “Soon after launch, we got into some unstable air. We should have gone much higher and left the area much sooner than we did, and we consumed too much of our resources,” said Bryant.
The French team came to America’s Challenge with a different goal, and they charted a different route by flying west. Their aim was to fly over Grand Canyon and land in Utah which nobody in America’s Challenge had done before.
A couple of hours after launch, Forden decided to get some sleep and laid out his bunk which took up half the basket space, but he could not sleep. He wore his night vision goggles and stuck his head out on the trap door to look below. They were flying over a forest. “It was really quite mesmerizing. I could hear coyotes howling at each other down below. We may have been two or three-thousand feet above the ground. Of course, the gas balloon is completely silent as compared to a hot-air balloon and is not disturbing anything on the ground. We were floating over this vastness. I closed my eyes at one point and tried to sleep, but then I said: sleep later, this is far too much fun.”
For Bryant, gas ballooning is pure ballooning. “Once you launch in a gas balloon, it’s you and the elements. You stay up for a couple of days and you live in the basket and you get a chance to bask in the wonder of flight. Of course, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing and must have a good understanding of the weather,” he says.
Pilots take turns sleeping in two or three-hour shifts. Then, Padelt tried to sleep. For the watch, Forden sat on an upside down five-gallon bucket with a cushion.
“The laid-out bunk leaves very little room to sit, and it was very uncomfortable. I was careful to hardly move, because if you move at all, it shakes the whole basket. And, I did not want to disturb Bert.”
In the sixth hour, their Polish counterparts Kryzsztof Zapart and Bazyli Dawidziuk were in the lead and were breezing at 39 miles per hour (63 km/h).
At dawn, as the sun peeked over the horizon, Forden and Padelt were flying east of Las Vegas city in New Mexico. “We were in the mountains and it was magical to see the sun rise and cast shadows of the mountains. It was quite moving,” recalls Forden.
They had some coffee from their thermos which was still nice and hot. Crews usually carry food and drink for the duration of the flight. Cuneo misses taking a cook stove, which they did when they flew helium balloons. “We used to prepare our warm meals in the evenings. We cannot do that now while flying hydrogen balloons,” he says, so their meals on these extended flights come from pouches and packets.
“As these flights occur at high altitudes and are often on oxygen, balloon pilots do not have much appetite and have to force themselves to eat,” says Vesely, adding that they have to make sure to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated.
The teams had flown eight hours now, mostly in the night. About 8 a.m. Bryant and Emich decided to take a precautionary landing. “We figured that if we were to go toward Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, then, we would have to land there as we did not have enough ballast for a longer flight—but we would have faced 30-miles -per-hour surface winds, while landing,” said Bryant.
The French team brought their balloon down on the Navajo reservation of Eastern Arizona, near White Ruin, after flying for 15 hours, and achieved an America’s Challenge first of a different kind by flying west. They were very pleased with their scenic flight and the memorable welcome by the locals.
The teams mostly flew between 11,000 and 14,000 feet and had to use supplemental oxygen. “It is very uncomfortable having oxygen on for 24 hours. There is zero humidity in it and it dries out your sinuses,” says Forden. It was also 20 to 25°F at high altitude and Forden was enwrapped in his sleeping bag for most of the flight.
Since balloon flights occur in the direction of the wind, pilots don’t feel the wind, except when they change altitude and wind currents. However, the smallest oversight, in planning can make a lot of difference because sometimes it is hard to understand the wind pattern only until you are flying in it. Cuneo says, once, in the Gordon Bennet, he made a rookie mistake. “I figured we would be flying south toward Italy and it will be comfortable, but what I did not realize that the wind that was carrying us to Italy came from north and it was very cold.”
The cold is especially tormenting while flying over the Alps and the seas in the Gordon Bennett race.
Around sunset, balloons start cooling and descending and pilots throw ballast to rise. Forden says, the sunset was as magical as the sunrise. Over the plains in Oklahoma and northwest Texas, they sailed over wind farms (used to generate wind power). “All of these windmills have lights on them and they are all synchronized. There were hundreds of acres of these windmills constantly blinking at the same time. It seemed so strange,” said Forden.
They also drifted over regions that had no light pollution and, in the cloudless sky, they saw all kinds of shooting stars.
After a day and night of flying, three teams were aloft. The Polish team was north of Sulphur Springs in Texas and enjoyed 300 miles lead ahead of the second and third place teams. Cuneo and Fricke were gaining in on Forden and Padelt. For a race with a duration record of more than 70 hours and distance record of 1998 miles, and the unpredictable wind pattern, their relative positions after 24 hours was little indication of who will win.
Forden and Padelt were second and flying northeast toward Texas. All the teams had occasional access to the Fiesta’s race website. “Our meteorologist told us that the leading Polish team would eventually turn right and head to the Gulf of Mexico and run out of land,” said Forden. “We had a better chance if we waited back for winds to go northeast and away from the Gulf of Mexico. We were going very slowly, but our meteorologist was very happy with our track and position and said that at 2 a.m. the winds will pick up.”
Padelt and Forden slept for a couple of hours each during the second night. The Polish team was still in the race but had lost some distance by swinging south and west and were flying east of San Antonio, Texas, and were headed toward the Mexican border. As Mexico was closed for competition, the team that enjoyed the lead for most of the race was now running out of flying room.
About 3 a.m. Forden and Padelt found out that Cuneo and Fricke had overtaken them and were on a faster wind course. Forden’s tracking radio could pick up tracking signals from other balloons if they were within a hundred-mile radius. “We knew that we would not be able to overtake them and decided to land near Dodge City, Kansas.”
Landing a Balloon is a Bigger Challenge
While preparing for landing, they surveyed areas for power lines, barbed wires, and trees, and aborted one attempt due to barbed wire. “There were a lot of heavy items in the basket and we did not want anything to fly around or hit us. We had to pack up everything in the basket. We put on our helmets and as we descended, we slowed down to eight miles an hour.” They were third in the race and had covered 429 miles (690.291 km) in 31 hours and 10 minutes.
Landing a hydrogen balloon calls for more precaution, says Cuneo. “When spectators come to watch, you have to make sure that nobody is smoking or has any other thing that would create a static charge. So usually we try to land in the middle of the field where there is nobody around.”
In a balloon flight, a night landing is dangerous and is used as a last resort only if the option to continue flying is a certain disaster. But in one Gordon Bennett race, Bryant had to take the tough decision to land at night. “Every now and then, we were being picked by a gust of wind and we knew there were thunderstorms in the Adriatic Sea and we didn’t want to go there,” said Bryant, recalling the tragic death of two Americans, Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis who went missing in thunderstorms over the Adriatic Sea in 2010.
Bryant landed the hydrogen balloon in an olive orchard. “The ground was a mucky gumbo, but there was no damage and no injury.” The risk in landing at night is catching power lines, he says. They landed in a pitch-black field where there were no lights, signals, electricity, or power lines. “From above, the open field appeared dotted by bushes. As they descended, the bushes turned out to be 15-foot trees and they landed between the trees. “You have no depth perception at night. We knew we were taking a risk, but it was our luck that it turned out pretty well,” he says.
As landing is the difficult part, balloonists make sure to get enough rest to be alert for landing.
The Polish team, Zapart and Dawidziuk, set their balloon down near Smiley, Texas, east of San Antonio Texas. They flew 672 miles (1,082 km) and were aloft for 37 hours and 22 minutes and were placed second in the race. Due to a technical glitch, their landing was not reported on the Command Center’s tracking website, leaving Cuneo and Fricke to figure out the maximum distance that would have been possible for their competitors to cover on their track toward Texas. When for six hours, the Polish team’s distance remained the same on the website, Cuneo and Fricke were certain that the Polish team had landed.
After flying for three nights and two days, several factors contributed to Cuneo and Fricke’s decision to land on Sunday at 6:45 a.m. (local time) near Monroe City, Missouri. “Late in the day the weather was going to get worse on the east side of Mississippi and we were also headed toward St. Louis airspace which is very busy. We knew that they would not be happy to have a balloon in their airspace. Also, we were tired, and thought, the earlier we land, it would be better to head back to Albuquerque,” said Cuneo.
Cuneo and Fricke emerged winners for the fourth time in America’s Challenge. Their flight covered 1395 km (867 miles) in 54 hours and 39 minutes.
Forden would like to take part in the America’s Challenge as well as in the Gordon Bennett Cup. “The ultimate goal of my life is to fly in the Gordon Bennett,” says Forden. “It’s very competitive and people take great risks in that race, so it’s not for the faint of heart,” he adds.
Once in the Gordon Bennett, Cuneo and Fricke were adrift for 24 hours over the North Sea. During the flight, I was not scared,” says Cuneo, “but in retrospect, it does seem frightening.” “Once you make your decision to fly over water you cannot do much about it but ride the wind, do your best job, and make the most of it,” says Cuneo. “We also carry survival suits and emergency locator transponders,” he adds. “If you decide to ditch, you can do in the balloon in a controlled way, and you can also wait for rescue vehicles to arrive and ditch close to them.”
The venue for the Gordon Bennett can be discouraging to some pilots due to political restraints, some hostile air spaces, large water expanses, and the Alps, all of which make for very difficult landings.
Drop Ballast or Save Ballast?
Ballast and gas are equivalent of fuels, and pilots try to conserve both to increase flight duration. Whether to drop ballast and rise, or save it for compelling situations, is a constant balance that pilots must work throughout the flight. Cuneo says that there is a learning curve on that one because the atmospheric flow is not always level (horizontal). “The question to ask—is the balloon riding a falling air current? In that case, the balloon will level out with the current and you should save the ballast to ensure a longer flight. If the balloon becomes heavy and falls through the layers of the air current it was in, then you have to throw some ballast to make it rise.” In addition, balloonists must also consider other factors like the terrain, the time of day, the size of the cloud cover, air temperature, and altitude above ground to determine if they must save or drop ballast to rise.
The Issue of Hydrogen and Helium in Gas Ballooning
The America’s Challenge is also a qualifying event for the first three American teams to compete in the Gordon Bennet Cup. “But America’s Challenge is struggling as a competition,” says Bryant. “There are barely enough balloons to keep the competition going and that speaks to the state of gas ballooning in America.” He believes Americans are hampered by a legal system which makes it very difficult for pilots to obtain hydrogen gas for the balloons. “The first thing they say is: what about the Hindenburg disaster? Well that was in 1937, and now we know a lot about the safe handling of products than we did then. Usually, they do not have a point, but the attitude persists and makes it difficult for gas ballooning in America.” He points out that in Europe they have pipelines everywhere, and pilots just turn on the spigot, fill their balloons with hydrogen for a few hundred dollars and fly. “In America, you have to compress the gas, put it into a truck with a union driver, who waits till all your balloons are inflated, charges late fees, and it cost four times more. It removes the incentive to go and have a fun flight.”
While hydrogen has long been the gas of choice in Europe as a lifting agent for balloons, in America, until the recent past, the non-reactive and stable helium gas was preferred to the flammable hydrogen. However, helium has become scarce and expensive and advances in safe technology has made hydrogen a better practical alternative. Kim Vesely says, helium is many times more expensive than hydrogen. “It cost $500 to fill a balloon with hydrogen but a minimum of $6000 and sometimes up to $12,000 to fill with helium. Now we have better procedures to handle hydrogen safely, so you will be seeing more hydrogen balloons in the United States,” says Vesely.
Cuneo and Fricke have flown in helium balloons for many years but they feel comfortable flying hydrogen balloons, too. “The hydrogen balloon has a conductive fabric so there is less chance of static charge building upon it,” says Cuneo.
For America’s Challenge to gain momentum and for more Gordon Bennett races to be held in the United States, hydrogen, the fuel for gas balloons, must be affordable and accessible—as it is in Europe where companies even offer few hours of joy rides to paying passengers. According to Bryant, several organizations as well as individuals are working toward that goal.
One of these organizations is the North Carolina Aero Club of America, which has a small gas balloon shared and co-owned by club members. “This balloon, built by Bert Padelt, is used for shorter “day” flights on the east coast, and because the balloon is small, it’s less expensive to operate. The hope is that this will help reduce the cost enough to encourage pilots to get involved in gas ballooning,” says Vesely.
Noah Forden got his gas balloon rating through this group, making him a qualified gas balloon pilot to compete in America’s Challenge.