2009 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race – by Brian Critelli

 It was with great anticipation that I left on Sept 29 for Albuquerque New Mexico.   Phil MacNutt and I had prepared all year for America’s premier gas balloon race.

 Our efforts were doubled this year in terms of carrying equipment because we purchased a new envelope that was lighter than the “Yellow Beast” that we have used over the last 7 years.   The new envelope was named “4 bags”  because it is approximately 100 lbs  (4 sand bags) lighter than our old system.   With me being the fat boy of the team,  4 extra bags of ballast might be enough to help us go one more night in the race.IMG_0280 Medium Web view.jpg

Our old balloon “The Yellow Beast” however did not stay at home,  it  was used by Linda Ellis and Daniel Fancoeur.   So our trip included double of everything.    Our first two days involved meeting with the other team to deliver the balloon and to make sure they understood how to assemble and operate this balloon.   We had only Friday to relax and prepare for a Saturday launch.  They fortunately had Tim Baggett as their crew chief.  He had helped assemble their system in the past. So their inflation was smooth.

In any ballooning activity weather is a significant factor.  When we arrived on Wednesday the wind was blowing over 40 mph.

  We were told the winds at the top of Sandia Crest were blowing over 100 mph.  They did not know how much over 100 mph because their wind speed indicator is limited to two digits so it was only reading 99 miles per hour.    Our weatherman had told us he felt we would be launching on Saturday.   The winds on the field were forecast to die off to 8-10 mph that evening.  We were also told if we did not launch for some reason we more than likely would not launch at all due to approaching weather systems.   During our fiesta weather briefing we were told to keep looking forward and back because the bad weather would be in front and in back of us.   If the winds forecast held we would be somewhere near Virginia or North Carolina in about 2.5 days.

Here is what we were looking at:

We generally use three altitude levels when we are planning for our flight. As you can see we could take three paths:  3000 feet agl, 9,000 feet agl and 12,000 feet agl.    We can not go higher than 18,000 feet due to airspace limitations.   Each of the larger markers on each line represent 24 hours. So you can see we were looking at 48 hours to the Atlantic Ocean.  The wind speed for the middle and high tracks were in excess of 60 knots.    We added two additional chase personnel because our chase crew was looking at driving around the clock to keep up with us.   (click on image to the right to see it full size)

2009 track



The problem we had was the convective weather we would encounter during the flight.   Here is what our weatherman showed us:  rain 2009(click on image to the left to see it full size)


              As you look at the jumble of blues, greens, yellows and reds you might ask what are we looking at.   Well it is the rain we were going to face during our flight.   You can see the heavy reds and purples over Texas.   It is a giant convective storm that was predicted for this area over the three days of the flight.   We were told get to Kansas and Nebraska; avoid Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas at the beginning of the flight and plan on rain when we got close to landing.   If you were too slow the rain in the NW corner of the country would catch us.   The hurricane on the coast of Mexico and California would be the source of moisture that would eventually affect all of the eastern USA and fuel the heavy storms in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas and later in the week Missouri, Kansas etc, etc, etc.

At our afternoon briefing we were again told that Saturday night would be “a go for launch”.  What actually happened is the Hurricane in the Pacific caused a developing trough area over AZ and NM to move and compress the wind gradients which cause the winds on the field to increase from 8 miles per hour to 20 plus mph gusting to almost 30 mph.   We were 5 minutes from launch when Fiesta put on a weather hold that lasted almost 3 hours.   In the end we could not launch the balloons safely and the launch was abandoned.

 If you were not there and would like to see a short video of how windy it was take a look at this video on YouTube:  


On Sunday they told us the event was canceled because the weather in the USA would not allow us 24 hours of safe flying conditions.    The cost to Fiesta for a second attempt to fill the 9 balloons was approximately 60K.   That was just too much considering the weather we would face in flight.    With that notice we were told all of our entry fees would be refunded.   That was the good news.  The bad is we only had one more day of paid hotel rooms.    I drove home on Sunday after the morning flight.  As most of you know they had several accidents on Sunday caused by the winds.   It has been a very challenging year for those at this event.

 I can tell you I was not unhappy with fiesta’s decision to cancel our flight.   It just gives me a little more time to get ready for next year.     This was the first time in 14 years that this event was cancelled.

 P.S.  The storms predicted for Texas were there I drove through them on my way home!

Here is a link to a video that Tim Baggett shot of the windy conditions.  He was crew chief on the Yellow Beast.


Here are a few pictures from our inflation effort at the 2009 America's Challenge Race:

2009 America's Challenge Photo Album