2003 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race
The 2003 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race was held on the opening weekend of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. This year’s event had 14 teams.
This year’s race was delayed one day due to weather but launched successfully Sunday afternoon. The normal launch time for this event is in the evening but this year’s event started to launch at 5:00 pm. By 5:40 pm all the balloons had launched in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. I personally enjoyed this year’s launch because it went off without a hitch. The Yellow Beast gas balloon launch team did a fantastic job. Everything went exceptionally smooth. The balloon inflated quickly and we had time to sit back and review everything prior to launch. I was in charge of flying the balloon during the launch and it was very exhilarating to be in control of our balloon. With the launch at 5:00 pm we were last in the launch sequence. It was great to launch in the daylight and watch a spectacular sunset, balloon glow and fireworks display that occurred on the balloon field after we were gone. It also meant that all of the balloon teams cleared the mountains prior to the sun going down. The stress of going over the mountains at night was eliminated.
Fiesta Field Prior to Launch Yellow Beast Launch
The early part of the race was very uneventful. We headed south towards the gap in the Sandia Mountains where Interstate 40 comes into the city. This is very close to the airport and we were in contact with Albuquerque approach during much of that time. We experienced a problem with our transponder until we found out that our antenna was not properly attached. Once we corrected that the airport control tower was happy they could see where we were. We were moving east towards Moriarity over the mountains and out of the airspace near the airport. The sun set and it began to get cold around 9:00 pm. The temperature dropped to around 40 degrees at 9500 feet msl. Not real cold but we felt the drop in temp quickly and put on our cold weather gear. We were settling in for the night watching the other balloons around us and watching the airplanes launching and landing at the airport. Our last conversation with air traffic control allowed us to turn off our transponders to save our batteries since we were out of the immediate area of the airport. Within about ½ an hour of turning off our transponders we noticed a very bright light on the horizon heading our way. All of the balloons have small strobes that allow other air traffic to see them during the night. This light was much larger and was not flashing. Phil and I started talking that it looked like a plane was headed our way. Our transponder is an older model and takes 30 seconds to warm up prior to transmitting. Within seconds a large jetliner came blasting by us at the same altitude within a stones throw from us. Or at least that is what is seemed like to the both of us. We were scrambling to get our transponder on and our radios back on to talk to Albuquerque Approach. I spoke to the controller and he asked how close that airplane was to us. We guessed it was within a ½ a mile from us and it flew by at the same altitude. We kept both our radio and transponder on for a loooooong time after that. We listened and watch air traffic control route planes around the balloons after that and discuss with the incoming pilots what all the little flashing lights were near the mountains.
As the sun sets each night the gas in the balloon begins to cool and the balloon begins to descend. This is known as contraction. We started our decent slowly and this decent continued over the next few hours. At our lowest point we had descended to within a couple a hundred feet from the ground. There are always questions during this time like: Why are we not stopping our decent since we are dropping sand to check our decent? Do we have a leak and are we loosing helium? Are we feeling the impacts of the mountain wave? We discussed many of these questions as our balloon refused to stop its slow decent to the ground. About the time we were the closest to the ground we began considering if we needed to prepare to land because our direction had turned from an easterly track to almost due south which was taking us into a prohibited area in the New Mexico desert known as Restricted Area - R5107 B. (This is one of the areas that the U.S. Government secretly tests atomic bombs, missiles and hides UFO’s.) This area is completely prohibited. No aircraft can enter the area. No exceptions. If we continued our direction we would have to land prior to entering the area in the middle of the night. We carry night vision goggles and could clearly see how close we were to the ground. We decided to drop a little more sand and try to stabilize the balloon. To our relief the last scoop of sand stopped our decent and leveled the balloon out. Once we were stable we had time to look for the other balloons. I was using the night vision goggles again to spot where the other balloons were in the sky and to my surprise I watched another gas balloon descending just like we had. They were much closer to the ground than we were. I told Phil that I believed they were dropping too fast and would impact the ground. Phil took the night vision scope and watched the balloon hit the ground and get dragged up the side of a hill. Once they dropped some ballast they rocketed back up to 12 or 13 thousand feet.
Our balloon finally started to climb back to the pressure altitude that it liked and we continued a painfully slow trip to the east at a speedy 4 - 5 knots. It was a painful because it did not seem like we were going anywhere. It was very boring at this time. When the moon set early in the morning we were treated to a beautiful red and orange moon that was peaking in and out of the clouds that were on the horizon. When the moon finally set the shooting stars came out. We watched many of them during the night. Along with getting very dark there was a tremendous amount of moisture in the air and all of our maps and papers were wilting with the moisture. Although the temp was hovering around 40 degrees it was exceptionally cold because of the moisture. No matter how many things I put on I was still cold. Later in the evening I was using the night vision scope again and spotted the balloon that Cheryl White and Mark Sullivan were flying. They were coming up underneath our balloon about 200 feet below and behind us. I believe this was a little unusual to be within talking distance of another gas balloon about 50 miles into the flight. We wanted to make sure they knew we were there. Cheryl answered and acknowledged they saw us. According to Phil she had a very sexy voice in the middle of the night. We dropped a little sand and went to a higher altitude and that was the last time we saw them for 150 miles until they came over our landing site in Clovis New Mexico about 100 feet above our heads.
I can’t really explain how difficult the period from 1- 5 in the morning is. You are in the dark, in the cold, the adrenaline of the race is starting to subside for the night and you are getting tired. You try not to move so the basket does not rock while your co-pilot tries to get a quick nap. Every movement seems to be exaggerated and it wakes you up with the slightest movement. All while you are trying to fly the balloon, log the events of the flight, view the instruments and maps and ballast sand to keep the balloon stable. The small FM radio seems to be your only friend during this time period as you try to fight off falling asleep and to let the other person get a little rest. One of the most glorious events you experience during this part of the balloon flight is the first rays of the morning sun that ending the darkness. Your heart is filled with excitement as the dark of the night gives way to the sunshine and warmth of the day.
We had flown for 10 hours when the sun had come up. We had traveled a whopping 90 miles from our launch site. Last year we had flown almost 400 miles in the same time frame. When the sun finally cleared the top of big thunderstorms at the New Mexico / Texas border (that we watched all night) it illuminated a very beautiful part of the New Mexico countryside near Ft. Sumner. It does not look like much from your car as you drive through it but is spectacular from the sky. We could see for 50 + miles in any direction. We spotted two balloons high in the sky about 50 miles behind us near the clouds. With the morning sun the gas in the balloon heats up and we went from 1000 feet above the ground to roughly 14 thousand feet without dropping any sand. The balloon began its normal pressure altitude oscillation. This means the balloon rises and descends as the gas in the balloon heats and cools with this up and down movement. We oscillated about 200 feet up and down very gently for the next several hours. As we approached the Ft. Sumner area we flew over a very thick cloud deck that was around 6000 feet. We flew over that cloud deck for about 6 hours.
Pictures of the approaching cloud deck from 14,000 feet.
We were told the clouds would break up and they did for several hours where we could see the ground below us. As the heating from the day began the clouds began to get thicker and thicker. This was not much of a problem because we were 5000 feet above them. Our problem was the northeast wind we needed to avoid the thunderstorms predicted for later in the afternoon was down around 8000 feet just at the top of the cloud layer. As we descended and approached the top of the cloud layer I would have believe it would be cool because clouds form when the atmosphere cools and moisture is squeezed out in the form of condensation or clouds. It was just the opposite. It was very bright due to the reflection of the sunlight and it was very warm. The temp above the clouds was around 65 degrees. Phil MacNutt shed his cold weather gear and sat in the basket enjoying the warm temperatures.
Phil’s Beef-cake shot. Looking up at the Envelope
We had trouble keeping the balloon stable as we flew just above the clouds. The heat above the clouds heated the gas in the balloon and we would rise. To keep us on our track we vented helium in the balloon by opening the valve at the top of the balloon. This caused the balloon to descend. We dropped ballast to stop our decent but it did not stop and we descended into the clouds. Our wind speed picked up and we turned northeast as we wanted but we were now flying through the top of the cloud layer. We turned on our transponder because we were near the airport and could hear planes flying around us. After about 30 minutes trying to get the balloon out of the clouds and stable it finally began to rise out of the clouds and we again were several thousand feet above the cloud deck that was thickening and growing deeper. We spoke to flight service and our weatherman and learned that were are now flying straight into a line of developing thunderstorms that were becoming active around us. This was amazing and unnerving at the same time to watch the clouds boil up and grow into thunderstorm clouds from the mid-level stratus cloud deck we had been flying over for the last 6 hours. We had two choices to fly over the storm clouds or to descend through the cloud deck and get under the growing storm clouds. Going over the clouds would have cost us too much in terms of ballast which would have severely impacted our ability to continue flying in this race to go over or around the clouds that were growing higher with each minute. We decided to take the other path and drop down under the cloud deck. We began our descent through the clouds after notifying Clovis approach of our intent. I can tell you I did not like this maneuver at all. We dropped through 2000 feet of clouds. Nothing but white all around us- zero visibility. It seemed like an eternity before the lush green farm land and dairy farms in Clovis, New Mexico appeared. When we got below the clouds what a sense of relief I felt that we were below the cloud layer and the balloon was gently descending and stabilizing about 100 feet above the ground. We had burned only about 3 bags of sand to stop our descent. The balloon was dropping now only about 50 feet per minute and was slowing down to about 6-8 miles per hour moving north. Phil and I began discussing flying through the night because we did not use as much sand to stop our decent out of the clouds and we were feeling good about continuing the flight.
About that time we felt we had dodged a bullet we are hit with the first of 4 thermals. Our gentle 50 foot per minute decent to 25 feet above the ground turned into a 600 foot per minute ascent to 3000 feet above the ground. Our attempts to stop our ascent back to pressure altitude by releasing some of the helium only increased our descent rate when we popped out of the top of the thermal. As a result we started a roller coaster up and down for approximately 3 miles. The balloon was bucking and being yanked by the thermals. We were rocketing up and I swear it felt like someone grabbed us and stopped our momentum upward. We immediately started a new descent to the ground we had just popped out of the top of our second thermal. We decided that we needed to land so on the descent from the 4th thermal we vented more helium and prepared for a hard landing. The basket hit the ground solidly in the middle of a crop circle that was being prepared for planting. We hit flat on the basket and dragged only a few feet before the basket turned over on its side and that was it! The flight was over. We were both disappointed that the flight had ended so soon only 22 hours but in retrospect we both learned a tremendous amount about flying gas balloons during this flight. It was very challenging and tested our abilities. We ended up fifth overall out of the 14 teams that flew. The winners made it all the way to Wisconsin. It was another great year for the America’s Challenge Balloon Race.
Landing in the Crop Circle Everything ends up on the floor