A Life Experience -  By Brian Critelli

Everyone has something in their life that they consider a really major event.  It could be getting married, having a child, graduating from college.   It is an event that changes you somehow or starts you down a new path in life.  I have been fortunate to have had a few of those experiences in my life.  Recently I was fortunate to add one more event to my list of my most memorable life experiences.   That event was flying in the America’s Challenge Gas balloon race.

You might be asking what could be so memorable about flying in a balloon.  Hundreds of people do it every day.   That is a true statement but only a few people each year in the United States get to fly in gas balloons.  I was told it is about 1 in 12 million get to fly in this type of aircraft annually.  It is a very exclusive or extreme area of our sport.   I am told there are only about 20 active gas balloon pilots in the US at this time. 

My participating in this event began almost 1 year ago.  Within a few weeks of the race being held in 2001 I was asked by Phil MacNutt to be his co-pilot in the race for 2002.   My first question to Phil was, are you sure you want me?  Don’t you want to fly with someone who has some experience in flying in these types of races?  Phil’s response was it was more important to have someone who is compatible from a personality standpoint and someone who makes good decisions and can be counted on when things got tough.   I accepted without really knowing what I was getting into.  My head quickly began spinning with all the questions that were racing through my brain.  Over the next twelve months I attempted to learn everything I could about gas ballooning.  What I found out is there is very little information available about flying this type of balloon.   The only reference training manual I was able to find was written by C.H.Roth in 1917. 

For me the lack of material I could use to understand how gas balloons fly only added to my uncertainty and my fears that I would do something stupid that would impact our efforts in the race.  I was worried about how I would react with the high altitudes, the cold we would experience, the possibility of bad weather,  the lack of sleep I was told would occur,  flying in airspace I would normally avoid and  many other personal silly things like the fact I have been known to sleepwalk on occasion or how many times I was going to have to use the restroom on the flight. 

October arrived very quickly.  We began to prepare the balloon for the race on Friday October 4, 2002.  We had discussed the flight on many occasions.  We previously weighed every piece of equipment that we would carry on the flight.  Phil was very optimistic that we would have more ballast this year than he carried the year before.  I did not understand at the time why the amount of ballast you carried was so critical.  We would agonize about everything in terms of its use during the flight and its weight.  I often thought it is only a pound?   How could a extra pound of anything hurt us.  I did not understand or comprehend this at the time but would quickly learn the reasons why this was so important.  We went to the first pilot briefing and my stomach started to tighten up.  The weather to me looked pretty bad.  There were the remnants of the Hurricane Lili working its way up the east cost.  There was a strong cold front pushing through the U.S. from Canada.  The possibility of rain and high winds was a serious possibility.   

The pilots in the briefing did not seem overly concerned about the weather forecast.  I was quiet and listened trying to understand what I had gotten myself into.   It was interesting to hear them talk about what the winds and weather might be doing two or three days into the flight.  For the first time in my flying career I was exposed to weather more than a few hours in duration.  Fiesta began on Saturday with a beautiful mass ascension.  Our race was scheduled to begin around 7:00 pm.  We arrived at the field about 12:30 p.m.after running around for a few required items.  Our assembly went well without any difficulty.   We had 7 – 10 crew people helping with various elements of preparing the balloon.  We had two people reviewing our inflation checklist to make sure everything was where it needed to be. 

The process of inflating the balloon with helium takes about 1-1.5 hours.  It is now about 4:30 in the afternoon.  The butterflies in my stomach are starting to grow with the impending launch period.  About 6:30 Phil and I jump in the trailer to change clothes that we will be wearing on the flight.  Time is getting short.  We meet with our Safety officer to do a final check of the equipment.    Tension is building as our launch time quickly approaches.  The crowd on the field is very large compared to years past.  All of the balloons are inflated except for one who is still filling.  Phil says get into the basket.  Our launch director is telling us that one of the balloons has passed and we are moving up in the launch sequence.  We need to have the balloon ready to fly in about 3 minutes.   We have everyone but Wayne Wooster (our crew chief) take their hands off of the basket as we dump sand to determine our equilibrium point.  We take off two bags of sand and then two more than 1 more.  What is going on?  We are loosing all of the extra sand we calculated we would have for the race.  We finally get the balloon light and we have only three extra bags of sand this year than last.  This is going to seriously hurt us in the long run in terms of the duration of the flight and our ability to deal with weather issues and landing when the time comes.   

The launch director has motioned us to follow her.  The people on the field are all around us and are now parting like the red sea.  We are making our final checks as we walk to the launch platform.  Only two of our crew can take us onto the platform.  We get to the top and the launch director is talking to us.  He checks our equilibrium to get us off the field quickly.  He has us drop two more bags of sand.  He asks us one last time are you ready to fly and do you feel good?  Both of us acknowledge we are.  The announcer begins our introducing us and the national anthem begins to play.  The crowd begins to cheer and we hear all the shouts of our friends new and old wishing us good luck.  The feeling is absolutely electric.  With that we lift off.  Phil ballasts a few scoops of sand to make sure we climb off the field. My job at this point is to make sure all the equipment is on and our night lights are deployed.  When I do this I hear our crew send up a huge cheer.  I have succeeded in my first assigned task of the flight.

About 10 minutes into the flight I am still concentrating on some things I have been asked to do.  Phil stops me at this point and says to look around.  I am immediately struck by the fact it is absolutely quiet around us.  You can still hear the crowds cheering below but around us it is peaceful and quiet.  When I look around I realize that the sun has just about set and it is getting dark and the lights of Albuquerque are burning very brightly.  The Sandia’s  (Spanish for Watermelon) have the beautiful pink tones they are known for just before dusk.  It was a beautiful night to launch and Albuquerque was spectacular.  We begin to our discussion about flying around the north end of the Sandias.  Some of the early balloons have decided to go directly over the mountains and have climbed to 12000 feet or more. 

It is very dark as we approached the Sandia Mountains.  We are using our night vision scope to see the mountains and to make sure we are not getting to close and had enough altitude to clear them..  Phil and I are counting sandbags and I have been given control of the balloon at this point.  We are discussing how the balloon is flying and ballasting of scoops of sand to cause our altitude to change.  It is really dark now.  We are both standing right now looking at things through the night vision scope.  Out of the darkness we hear a voice.  A mans voice says “Look out here we come”.  I look around because I know we are over the Indian reservation.  I know it is not Phil’s voice and we both are trying to determine what we had heard.  We both turn around and out of the darkness one of the hydrogen balloons passes within 20 yards of us in a very fast decent.  I can tell you my feeling on this was like when you are working on something with all of your concentration and someone walks up behind you and scares the tar out of you.  Your heart jumps and the hair stand up on your neck.  It was that kind of a feeling.  

 We finally cleared the Sandias and begin our flight over New Mexico towards Texas.   We are having trouble getting the balloon to stabilize.  We are using a lot of sand to keep the balloon at a relatively stable level.  We were not sure at this point if the balloon had a leak or not.  All we know is that we were loosing altitude very quickly after each scoop of sand.  I would later learn that we were feeling the effects the mountain on the airflow in the area.  The balloon did not settle down until after 1:00 in the morning when the atmosphere stabilized and cooled off and we were far enough from the Sandias to loose the effects on the wind currents.   During the night the balloon will osculate.  That is it will rise and fall due to heating and cooling of the lifting gas.  During the night we osculated about 100 feet every few minutes.  Rising then gently falling as the balloon reached it pressure altitude where it wanted to fly.  The balloon also rotates during the osculation’s  As a result I learned to use the stars as my guide like sailors used to do.  I used the belt of Orion most of the night as my directional guide. 

 We began watching the Thunderstorms almost immediately after dark.  There were some to our north over the Santa Fe horizon and to the east over Texas.  The ones over Texas were of concern because we were flying in that direction.  We leaned they were over Amarillo and Borger Texas some 250 miles away.   We knew that these storms were the location of the cold front.  The storms were huge.  60,000 foot cloud tops and they were lighting up the sky with huge lightning bolts.  It was spectacular and unnerving at the same time.  We would learn later that some of the balloons got to within 8 miles of this storm.  A couple of pilots indicated they would not be flying gas balloons again as a result of their experience with this weather.  We were having trouble reaching our weather man so we called the command center for a weather update.  Our concerns mounted when the fiesta weather briefer told us our track was taking us to the storm and we needed to do whatever we could to avoid them.  This include considering landing at night.  Several teams did this.  We were fortunate that one of the balloons we had been following was on a very fast track to the north.  He was about 4000 feet higher than we were so we decided to drop some sand and see if we could match his speed and direction.  We had been traveling about 17 miles per hour.  When we reached the same altitude we were moving north east away from the storms at about 40 miles per hour.   It was about 3:00 am when Phil and I switched duties.  I layed down and he took over the controls of the balloon.  After a brief nap 30 minutes or so I woke up.  For me one the most incredible site of the flight had just occurred.   It was absolutely quiet and by gazing upward you got to see the most beautiful yellow balloon covered by a blanket of stars.  The crystal clear skies and the millions of stars just engulfed the balloon.  I can not explain it well enough so everyone will understand.  I just hope everyone gets to have a similar event in their life.  It is one of my memorable events of the flight.

The Temperature was dropping as the night wore on.  It was 32 degrees for several hours before the sun came up.  The thunderstorms over Texas were still going strong until just before sunrise.  With daybreak we could see the huge anvil of the storm cells we had watched all night and the wall of clouds that represented the frontal boundary.  Sunrise in the balloon was another welcome and beautiful site.  I believe we had just crossed into Texas and it was about 6:30 in the morning.  We were still heading northeast and our wind speed was still about 42 miles per hour.  As the sun came up I experienced solaring in a gas balloon.  This is the process of the suns rays heating up the gas in the balloon and causing it to gain several thousand feet of altitude.  We flew most of Sunday between 13,500 and 14,000 feet.  Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have lots of farm land because that’s what we looked at for the next 18 hours.   The balloon osculated about 500 feet during the day.  We had to do very little as the balloon reached its desired altitude and flew itself.   About 1:00 I began to feel the effects of the altitude.  I began to experience a pretty strong headache.  Phil said he was feeling a little drained also so we both went on oxygen.  Almost immediately my headache when away and Phil said he began to feel better also.   We stayed on Oxygen for the next few hours.

About 3:00 pm we called our weatherman for an update.  We felt like we had enough ballast to get through the night and land sometime in the morning or possibly early evening on Monday.  When we spoke to him he said he was really concerned that we would be flying into the frontal boundary of the cold front in the Missouri area.  He did not tell us not to keep flying but we did hear the concern in his voice.  Phil and I had a discussion about how much ballast we had left and what we were possibly flying into.  We decided that we did not have enough ballast to maneuver around the weather and to land safely.  We agreed to end the flight Sunday night.  We were approaching Independence Kansas. It is now about 5:00 pm and we are at about 13,500 feet.  Phil and I begin landing preparations.  We did a sandbag count, water ballast count, and other ballast count.  We had 8 bags of sand, 4 gallons of water, and a collection of things that equal about ˝ a bag of sand.   (Note the sandbags weigh 25 lbs). Next we brought all of the items attached to the outside of the basket inside.  They are stuffed into bags, pouches, under the bed anywhere they could be stowed.  Phil indicated to me that he did not want them being thrown out or hitting us in the back when we land. We began the process of landing.  In gas balloons it is usually a process that takes an hour or longer to bring the balloon gently down to earth.  I learned we want the process to be slow enough so the balloon glides in as gently as possible.  Phil coaches me on the process for landing a gas balloon.  I was instructed on where the deflation port lines are secured that would be opened to allow the helium to escape once we touched down.  How to secure the anti-sail lines that we would cut to allow the envelope to become a parachute in the event of an emergency.  The process for opening the vent and using ballast to land the balloon.  The timing of dropping the drop line as the balloon approached the ground. and what would occur when we landed.  All of this discussion seemed reasonable except for the fact the wind speed on the ground was 25 mph and we were crossing a rolling country side.   Phil said he should do the landing once the balloon had stabilized about 2500 feet above the ground.  He did not have to ask me twice.  I began our decent from 13,500.  After gently pulling the valve line for a few seconds at a time we started descended bout 400-600 feet per minute   Over the next 20 minutes, the balloon rotated and changed directions.  We had been going northeast at about 50 miles per hour and had turned south and were now slowing down.  We utilized both sand and water to slow our decent and to level the balloon off at 2500 feet above the ground.  Phil took over and we began our final decent.  We were moving quickly as we approached the ground.  The lowest ground speed we would expect was about 16 miles per hour and that was in the lowest area of the rolling hills.  Each time we would float over a hill our wind speed would resume the 25 mph.  We approached a wide open grassy area and Phil said get ready on the drop line, deflation port lines and to have at least two bags sand available if he needed.  The approach was fine we had just cleared a low area and had to clear a metal building and a small set of power lines and we would touch down in the grassy area.  Everything was going as planned – We were about 100 feet off the ground.  As soon as we cleared the power lines the terrain was rising again.  We were about 75 feet off the ground.  Phil tells me to drop the drag line.  I feel it uncoil and hit with a thud.  The next thing I remember is hitting the ground.  I am pulling the deflation port vent lines and we are dragging.  Both of us are down in the basket as our drag continues.  Without notice we hit a rock buried in the grass and the basket dog houses.   We are being dragged upside down and all of our stowed equipment is now on top of us.  We drag for another 10 yards and finally come to a stop.  Phil is knotted like a pretzel between the ground and the bed I am a little better off face down in the dirt.  I roll over and I am all tangled up in the deflation lines that fell into the basket and all the gear we had stowed.  There is sand and grass and debris still floating in the basket and we determine if either of us has been injured.  We try to turn the basket over but can not due so because of the force of tension from the envelope.  I give my knife to Phil and he cuts the straps holding the sleep door and we both squeeze out the sleep door.  We are down and safe.  What a landing!  We ended our flight with two bags of sand remaining.   It was a real Yee haw landing.  

We landed on a private 40,000 acre ranch about ˝ hour before dark.  By the time we hitched a ride to Cary Kansas, met up with our crew, went to the police station for help, contacted someone who could let us through the locked gates of the property it was about 11:30 at night.  We had to use the GPS to find the balloon in the prairie grass field we landed in.   It took us about 30 minutes to pack up everything and head to our hotel for the night.   It was the end to a great first flight.

 I knew immediately that this would not be my last flight.  This was a life experience for me.  It is something I will never forget and it has started me on the path to getting my gas rating and doing more of this type of flying.  It is very different from hot air balloon flying.  Both are equally fun but they are very different at the same time.   The fiesta webmaster indicated they had over 300,000 people hit the gas balloon tracking site.  The interest in this aspect of ballooning is growing rapidly and I hope to be part of it.  Thanks to Phil MacNutt for inviting me.  Thanks to my family and crew that made this event possible for the both of us.  I wish good luck to the top three finishers of the race.  I know they will represent our country well in the Gordon Bennett Championships in 2003.