America’s Challenge 2006 by Brian Critelli

The America’s Challenge 2006 was delayed by weather for several days due to rain. .  Those of us who were involved with the America’s Challenge had many days to think about the weather affecting the area and the USA.  We had various predictions that when we finally did launch we might be in Michigan, New York, South Carolina, Texas or Florida at the end or our flight.

When we did officially launch on Tuesday night the wind patterns were fast from west to east.  It became clear that there was a good chance to make it to the Atlantic Ocean within 2 flying days.   Our average speeds were going to be around 40-60 mph across the county.   It was an interesting flight for me because for the first time we would cross one class B airport and two class C airports.   This is one of the things that makes gas ballooning different than hot air ballooning.  Because of the length of time these balloons fly you must deal with airspace and weather.   It was very fun to get near these major airports and interact with flight service.  It was also a little stressful when the big planes would fly close to you as they took off or landed.   We had an MD-80 on an inbound flight path at DFW fly by us 250 knots at what seemed a stones throw away.  We have a very cool video of it as it went by.   It took us about 3 hours to cross over the airspace at Dallas Fort Worth Airport.   I was truly amazed at how well the different air traffic control groups work together to keep the planes safe and moving through the area.   The air traffic controllers must go home with a sore throat everyday because all they do is talk constantly to hundreds and hundreds of planes.  Our flight across DFW took us within 1 mile of the end of the runway so we go a great view of planes taking off and landing at this facility.  We also got to see 2 F-16’s take off from another airport very close to DFW.  It was very cool to see them take off in formation and streak across the sky.

Overall, we had two wonderful days of flying.  The weather was beautiful as we flew between two frontal boundaries.  The only real problem we had during this flight is all of our electronic seemed to be inoperable at some time during the flight.  We had trouble with our transponder, Com radio, our flight tracker that fiesta provided, our satellite phones and our Flytech barograph.  All critical electronics to the flight.  Fortunately for us Phil is a wiz when it comes to electronics and fixed each item as we encountered trouble.  The transponder was the biggest problem as it took several hours to identify and fix the problem with the antenna bulkhead connector.  Flight Service in Albuquerque was very patient and told us to keep working with it.  Phil fixed this unit just before leaving Albuquerque airspace.   The satellite phones we used this year failed us badly.   We later learned the global star company is launching new satellites and are repositioning existing ones so there are very big areas that the phones do not work.    This was a major frustration to us because we could not talk to our weatherman or the command center or our chase team during the flight.   The transponder trouble and the failure of the satellite phones nearly crippled our flight and really raised our stress level.  

The winds were fast and we saw a lot of county in a short period of time.  Our track was basically west to east until we got into the Texas Louisiana area.  We then started to move more Southeast and headed towards Naches Mississippi.  We flew low around 3500 AGL most of the night so it was warm 60 degrees and very comfortable.  Around 4 in the morning as we approached the Mississippi river we began a slow stead rise as the gas expanded in the warm air in the area.  The balloon ascended from 3500 agl to 9000 agl without us doing anything to help it.   Our flight speed when from 17 mph to 50 mph with the gain in altitude.   We crossed the Mississippi around 6:00 in the morning.  We were trying to remain at a slower wind speed to insure if we did fly on we would not have to land in the middle of the day or run out of land prior to hitting the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean during the night.  

As we got into Thursday, Phil MacNutt and I discussed what we should do in terms of our plan for flying that day.   Being relatively new gas pilots we seem to waste a lot of ballast.  We spend more time trying to keep the balloon where we want and it eats up a lot of sand.  We had about 15 bag of sand or other ballast when we started or 2nd day of the flight.  That is more than enough to fly through the day and land before night if we were smart with its use.   Since I don’t fly gas as much as I would like, my position was we needed as much sand as possible to insure a safe landing.  Typically 6-8 bags minimum. Phil agreed knowing if we did fly all day and we had to maneuver to avoid weather or change direction we could easily eat up much of the ballast we needed for landing.

Our weatherman Mark Conner did a great job (when we could actually talk to him, f*#@ing - satellite phones) to keep us up to date on what was happening with the weather, wind speed and what he thought the best track was for us.   We knew at this time that Willie Eimers and Greg Winker were already in Georgia and that there were at least three other balloons near us.  Several teams had already landed at this point.  On Wednesday we had at least 4 balloons in site all day.  On Thursday we could not see any of them at all no matter how hard we looked.  We could only guess where they were.   Fatigue was starting to creep in on me.  I did not sleep at all during this flight.  I don’t know why it just worked out that way.  Phil and I were both concerned about my lack of sleep.  Fatigue is not a good thing when you are flying.

Around 10:00 am we prepared the basket for landing.  Everything was stowed away.  All remaining items hanging on the basket are brought inside the basket and tied down.  It is the best preparation I think we have every done during this race.   We were at 11,000 feet.   I started our decent and pushed the balloon down at 300 - 400 feet per minute until we were about 2000 feet from the ground.   We were over large homestead areas with good areas to land.   Once were in position about 750 feet above the ground the wind shifted and we started moving west about 8-10 mph. – a comfortable speed for landing.  The only problem is the wind shift put us over a heavily forested area of Gulfport / Biloxi.   We flew for several miles hoping we would clear the forest.   Our decent and approach to landing burned up 7 bags of sand.  At this point we see a fire road cut through the forest and a new deer feeding area shaped like cul-de-sac that has been cleared in the forest.  That would be our intended landing site.   We are about 100 yards from the cul-de-sac landing site about 100 feet off the ground and about 20 feet about the trees still standing after Hurricane Katrina.  Most of the forest was a mass of broken pine trees snapped in half by the storm.  We deploy our drag line to orient the balloon.   We are about 10 yards from the road and all of a sudden the balloon starts descending.  Phil thinks I have popped the deflation ports.  The balloon is now about 10 feet from the road and we are landing in the trees.   We are half way down to the ground and the envelope is at the top of the tree line.   We realize our drag rope has gotten snagged in the trees behind us and is acting as an anchor.   At this point we pop the deflation port and the balloon settles to the ground. We are on the ground safe and only 10 feet from our intended landing area. (See pictures at the bottom) Our only problem is chest high undergrowth of briars and vines to our nicely cleared deer feeding area.

Our flight was over but the fun was just beginning.  We were about 200 yards from a paved road.  We walked out to the street and flagged down a very nice couple (John and Debbie Peterson) who lived down the road from where we landed.  My first question to them after introducing myself was where are we?   They said we were in Saucier (So Sha) Mississippi - a small community of at least 7 or 8 people to the west of Gulfport.  I asked them if they would take me to the local police station so I could get some help to recover the balloon and getting a gate unlocked.   I learned that they don’t have much in this town.  Not even a police station. They did have county law enforcement.   Ms. Peterson said she knew the Sherriff and would call him from the Post Office which is the main point of interest in this area.   Ms. Peterson called the Sherriff and told him “You aren’t going to believe this, but a balloon crashed on Saucier Advance road”.  The Sherriff promptly responded “Your kidding - Right”? Well that was all it took the next thing we saw was a rescue helicopter flying over our “Crash Site”,  two fire trucks, an ambulance, 5 police cars,  multiple volunteer fireman (including one in a clown suit), two TV stations, 1 newspaper reporter, two representatives from homeland security and ultimately the forestry department, their bulldozer and 10 of their staff.  It was the biggest thing to happen in their community in some time.   Even after explaining that we made a safe landing the TV reporters wanted to know why we had crashed in the forest.  Their report was good and we would later learn that it was picked up by CNN, The Weather Channel, and local TV and Radio stations all over the USA.   

The people of Saucier, MS were wonderful. Thanks to the Petersons, the Mississippi Forestry department and the emergency services of Harrison County for all of your help.     We could not have recovered the balloon without you.  We are glad (in just a tiny way) that we could bring something exciting to your community.   You are the best!

After the race we learned we were not the only team that landed in the trees.  Several had more interesting stories than ours but you will have to ask them about it.  Our only claim to fame is that our story made the newspaper and the TV.  Thanks to our families, our chase team Wayne, Renee, and Ron and all of our friends that helped us during our flight.  We could not have done it without you. Congratulations to Andy Caton and Kevin Knapp for a great flight that took them over the Gulf of Mexico and into Citra, Florida.  They flew 1478 miles to win the race. They beat the second place team of Willie Eimers and Greg Winker by 13 miles.   We ended up in fifth.

Here are a few pictures of our flight:

            Preparing for Launch - Picture by Laura Tibodeau     Entering DFW Airspace - Picture by Andy Caton / Kevin Knapp

      Flight path across Texas                       A view from 10K from inside the basket

            Basket on the ground                Envelope Caught in the trees

       Dragline High in the trees           Bull Dozer to the rescue!

  Our rescue team -  See the clown?      Our launch and chase team.

      Standing next to the basket.  All Smiles!   More pictures from Laura Tibodeau


As Maxwell Smart used to say "Missed it by that much"! -  Picture by Debbie Peterson  Just a little undergrowth near the balloon - Picture by Debbie Peterson
A view from down the road!- Picture by Debbie Peterson   Bulldozer on its way to us - Picture by Debbie Peterson