America’s Challenge – 2004 by Brian Critelli
The America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race was held on Oct. 2, 2004 in Albuquerque New Mexico. It is the third time I have been fortunate enough to participate in this event. As we entered into this year’s race we all were hoping for good weather because the past two years had thunderstorms that impacted the race. During our weather briefing we were told there would be high pressure dominating all of the USA which would result in clear weather and no serious storms all the way to the east coast. We finally thought we had a good weather pattern for the race!
The race began in beautiful weather on Saturday night. We launched about 8:15 pm. Winds were light and temperatures were warm. We took off slowly and moved north at about 2 mph. A few of the teams dropped a lot of ballast and went high to catch the fastest wind of the race about 25 mph at 16 k – 17k feet.
With the information our weatherman provided we decided to take it easy and drift as far north as we could before looking for the winds that would take us to the east coast of the USA over the next 3 days. About 11:30 pm the clouds began to form and a small thunderstorm popped up on the south west side of Albuquerque. Looking back it was an omen of things to come. Our wind speed picked up to 7 mph and we moved slowly north watching the thunderstorm work it’s magic on the city. Over the next several hours we watched the light show and continued our northerly track through the mountains near Santa Fe. The balloon was stable and flying very well until we got into the mountains. Then the work began. We were on watch all night making sure we would clear each mountain while expending as little ballast as possible. We experienced a lot of instability in the atmosphere as well as a changing weather patterns. We used a lot of ballast to keep the balloon where we wanted it. The clouds formed around us while we were moving through the mountains which made the flight more complicated. We could not always see the top of the peaks were needed to clear. The sectional maps, GPS and the compass we had on board were very important during this time because it helped us stay ahead of curve in terms of flying the balloon. We could react early enough even with the clouds to clear the peaks as we quietly flew over. The sectionals told us how high the peaks were and the compass and GPS were used to determine our exact flight direction. The balloon rotates during the flight and because it is dark you do not always have the normal visual clues to determine of the actual flight track of the balloon.
During the night we enjoyed many sites and sounds including shooting stars, the elk bugling and the wonderful smells of an aspen and evergreen mountain forest. We gently descended into the valleys and ascended over the mountains as the wind flow would rise and fall over each peak. As the morning broke the most beautiful sunrise I have experienced as a pilot occurred. The morning clouds were light and virga was falling from the clouds. (Virga is rain from clouds that evaporates before it hits the ground). We experienced some very light rain as we passed under the clouds and we also experience the first of two periods of snow fall during the race. It was cold most of the night with temperatures hovering at around 30 degrees until the sun came up and made its presence felt.
(Both Pictures are of Phil MacNutt and Brian Critelli over the mountains in Santa Fe NM by Bill Arras and Janet Folks as they tried to catch us in the race). Now you can see why we fly gas balloons. It is just spectacular!
As the morning continued we watched at least five balloons working to find winds at some level that would move them in the direction they wanted and as fast and as far as possible. We did the same. We went as high as 15.7 k and as low as 5 feet above the ground. All to no avail, we could not find any winds in excess of 11 mph. The highest winds found were not in the direction we wanted to go. So we continued north at about 13.5k at about 7 mph. About 12:00 noon, we began to see serious cloud build up as we approached the Angle fire, NM area. The thunder was starting to rumble. We spoke to flight service and they indicated that the storms we could hear were about 10 miles from us and in a line of storms about 15- 20 miles long. These storms were not predicted but were popping up all over the New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma region. We did not feel we could out run the storms so we began a fast decent down to ground where we landed. The landing was fantastic. We made several practice landing approaches and I made the final landing in winds about 7 mph.. As we got near the ground our direction reversed as we entered the air stream heading toward the thunder storm. We ended our flight in a beautiful area north of Wagon Mound NM. The only thing out were we landed were 4 or 5 antelope grazing on the prairie grasses.
We later would learn that the weather became a major influence on this year’s race. Three gas balloons were destroyed or lost. One of the balloons was struck by lightning and made an uncontrolled / emergency decent from roughly 15 K feet to the ground. Fortunately the pilots performed a critical emergency procedure that turns the envelope into a parachute which helped to slow their decent to the ground. They hit trees on the way down which helped break their fall and probably saved their lives. Both were injured and broke an ankle. I would later learn that one of the hydrogen balloons also experienced static electricity arcing in their basket. They were fortunate all they received was several electrical shocks and not a fireball from their hydrogen balloon catching on fire from the static electricity discharge. I was told this was the first documented case of a balloon being struck by lightning since 1922 during another national gas balloon race held in the USA. The second balloon was forced down due to a heavy thunderstorm in the middle of the night. This balloon contacted power lines during the night landing. The arcing power lines set the balloon envelope on fire, which set the grass on fire and it completely destroyed the rest of the system. The third balloon was lost as the team was making a daylight landing. They had a deflation port malfunction and could not vent the helium in their balloon or stop the balloon from dragging due to the high winds caused by the storm. The team jumped from the basket as it was dragging on the ground toward the power lines. With the loss of weight from the pilot and co-pilot the balloon took off again and its current location is unknown. They had stowed all of their equipment and turned of their tracker. So when it took off it was no longer visible to the command center that tracks the balloons. It was last seen entering the storm the pilots has so wisely avoided by landing.
The winning distance for the 2004 race was 611 miles. Congratulations to Richard Abruzzo and Gary Johnson.
In a year that the weather was not supposed to be a factor Mother Nature proved once again that she is in charge. This race should be renamed to the “America’s Weather Challenge” because you never know what you will get into as you fly across the country.
Gas ballooning no matter how you look at it is an extreme sport!
Here are the results of the race:
(Note: Team 11 was technically eighth due based on previous tracking information but was disqualified because the final location of the balloon could not be determined). All teams below moved up one position as a result of the disqualification.