Summary of the fiesta gas flight, 2005 by Phil MacNutt

After 4 years of crappy weather, we finally got a good year.  No thunderstorms forecast and nice speedy winds to the east.  Tim has been relentless with reminding me of my 200 mile flight last year, so I had to do something to shut him up.  So we flew 1,480 miles.


My 2nd pilot this year was a friend from Belgium, Anja Kuemmerlein, a German native, but currently seeking dual citizenship in Belgium.  I was very sad that my normal partner Brian Critelli was not able to fly with me this year, but I also looked forward to flying with someone new and learning new things.  With only 14 flights, I am a rather new pilot, even by American standards. 

We had weatherman Don Day working the skies for us, and Anja also had a good friend in Germany looking at weather and trajectories.  Combined with information from Flight Service, we had lots of solid information to base our flight decisions on.  The first part of the flight was quite peaceful, with no t-storms and a pleasant night, averaging maybe 16-20 knots.  We flew over Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Anja turned to me and said “Where is the strip?”.  Ok!  We flew low that night so we were very comfortable and warm.  Sunup found us around the Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado corner with good winds.  I cooked breakfast (coffee, oatmeal, beef jerky), and we started our day.  It became rather hot during the day but we were lucky to have a high cloud deck that gave us some relief and also cut the solaring to a minimum.  At this point our pressure altitude was only 10,200 feet.  As the day wore on, the winds continued to increase, just as the weather folks said it would.  30 mph turned into 40, which by sunset turned into 50.  We went into the 2nd night with plenty of ballast and plenty of speed.  We should have painted flames on the side of the basket.  By midnight we were pushing 60 mph, with a peak of 64mph while Anja was sleeping.  I decided to not wake her with the exciting news…

I started plotting the maps and was getting rather concerned since at this point we were nearing South Dakota/Minnesota and still had 7 or 8 hours of darkness to go before morning.  I gave Don a call and said bluntly, “Don you have GOT to slow this balloon down”.  He assured me that within a few hours our speed would begin to diminish.  He suggested climbing to 12,000 feet to slow down, but we did not want to expend the ballast to do so.  I went to sleep for a little while and when I woke up, Anja was happy to point to the GPS showing 33 mph.  Around sunrise, we were over the forests of Wisconsin with a thick cloud deck below us.  The clouds were not expected to go away for many hours, so we turned on the transponder and I snuck the balloon down.  The worst part was that the deck was only a couple of hundred feet so we had little room for error.  Once under the deck, we took turns flying the balloon in a narrow band above the trees and below the clouds.  I was having difficulty keeping the balloon trimmed and just assumed that 1) I was fatigued and 2) I suck.  Anja, with 50 flights under her belt was certainly able to do a better job, but she too had to constantly adjust with valving and sand to keep this thing even close to level.  I discussed this with several pilots later, and they all had the same problem, which made me feel a little better.

Anja and I decided to land after we had passed John Kugler (sorry john), who had landed earlier that morning.  We had to fly a couple of more hours up into the U.P. of Michigan in order to pass his distance.  we were flying over pretty much total forests with no roads or any sign of civilization.  We had the ballast to cross Lake Superior, looming rather close in front of us, but we had no survival gear, and I did not want to cross the lake and into the remote forests of Ontario.

Looking at the sectional chart, we could see that there was only one main road left before the lake, so we decided to land on that road.  Closer inspection showed that a large  powerline ran along the road as well as a 7 mile wide lake bordering the road that was directly in our path.  At that point we looked down and saw a cleared area next to a dirt road running under us.  We looked at each other, and I pulled the valve.  We had a great landing in the trees, rather uneventful actually.  Calls to the command center got the sheriff there within only a couple of hours.  We packed out all the flight gear and left the balloon and basket.  The deputies took us back to the police station where we met up with the German team of Josef “Bepperl” Hoff and Stefan Handl, and their crew.  Our crew of Renee Wimbish and Francois Lebrun arrived after a non-stop 33 hour drive.  In my opinion, the chase crews should get the prizes, not the pilots.  The German team had landed in the same general vicinity and all were ok.  The best part was that the county prosecutor was there, and he did not “object” to us drinking beer in the police station parking lot.  He took us out for pizza and beer at the local pub in Crystal falls.  A much needed night of sleep was next, then back out to get the balloon.  The German team insisted that they help us get the balloon.  Thick forests, bog, and pouring rain, and they were right there with us.  I was so tired that I was willing to just leave the “fat bastard” in the forest, but Bepperl said “none of us leaves until the balloon is back in the trailer!”  Having a pure German mom, I knew better than to argue.  Bepperl is an accomplished mountain climber and ski instructor, and has had many difficult retrievals in Europe, so he knew all the tricks to getting the bastard out of the woods.  Soaking wet, the balloon probably weighed 400+ pounds and was all snagged up in the trees and full of limbs and stuff.  Local deputy Mike Wagoner brought out two hired men, as Renee called them “big ol’ corn fed Michigan boys”. These guys attacked the balloon with a vengeance, and within 10 minutes had it down on the ground and rolled up.  We stuffed it in the bag and Bepperl made a mule team harness to drag the bag out.  4 men and myself hitched up in the harness and started pulling.  It worked perfect.  In less than an hour, we were out of the woods and packed in the trailer.  Bepperl told me of his landing on a mountain top in Romania where they dragged the basket down 2,000 feet of elevation on what they thought was going to be a road, but turned out to be nothing but a creek.  The basket was destroyed due to all the rocks and boulders and trees and stuff.  They then had to drive 300 km around the other side of the mountain to retrieve the envelope.  This was all done in one night.  My pack out was “the gravy train” in comparison.

We packed both balloons up and hit the road, my truck and the German team in their big van.  Thirty three hours later, we pulled into Albuquerque at around 1am.  Bonnie was waiting for us and we had some beers to decompress and share stories.

In summary I’d like to say that I missed flying with Brian, but I enjoyed my experience with Anja and I learned a great deal from her.  I have great respect for the German/European gas ballooning community, and it is always a valuable experience to fly with one of them.  The unselfish commitment that the German team showed in helping us retrieve will never be forgotten.  This was a significant inconvenience for them, and they made me feel like family during the experience..

The flight that Anja and I made was good enough to qualify for the Gordon Bennett next year, so I look forward to flying in either Paris or Belgium (not decided at this time), and Anja plans to team up with another pilot in Europe to represent Belgium.  Congratulations also go to the teams of Peter Cuneo/Barbara Fricke and Andy Cayton/ Danni Suskin who will be joining me in Europe representing the USA.