When one door closes another opensÖ By Greg Winker
For the last four years, Iíve flown with Willie Eimers in the Americaís Challenge Race held during Fiesta. This year, Fiesta would host the Gordon Bennett race in addition to Americaís Challenge. Willie lives for the Gordon Bennett so there was no question he would fly in that event. Heís won it three times and come in second another four times.
The unfortunate thing for me is Willie is German, and to compete in the Gordon Bennett Race, he has to fly with a German co-pilot. As a result, I drew the short straw this year and was out of my usual October ride.
How does the saying go? When one door closes another opensÖÖ
As I was mulling the situation over, I reminded myself I had had a Rozier balloon in my garage and Iíve never found the right opportunity to fly it. But this year I would be in Albuquerque all week and I would have no commitments. Why not take it out for a spin? And as long as I was at it, why not try to break a world record. Or two.
So I spent the better part of six months preparing the balloon and organizing the flight. Don Day, my weatherman decided that I should go the day after I got to Albuquerque. Nothing like getting the week started in a hurry.
My plan was to launch right at sunrise. That meant rolling out of bed at 2:30 AM. Hot air guys may think this is insane. But gas guys look at the glass half full and see it as sleeping in. Normally you get out of bed at midnight for a sunrise launch. A short drive out to Moriarty and we were ready to set up. Surface winds looked about 8-10 mph. That may make a hot air balloon tough to launch, but in a gas balloon Ė where the lift per unit volume is greater Ė itís not really a problem.
Willie Eimers was there to be my Balloonmeister and he did a masterful job of getting the balloon inflated. A balloon this size only takes about a half hour to fill, so we were still getting the basket loaded with gear when Willie shut off the gas. Mike Pryor was acting as my observer and we spent a few minutes comparing GPS coordinates, checking the time, verifying altitude and doing all those things that observers do.
Finally with nothing else to do, Willie weighed me off and sent me on my way. The wind was blowing 8-10 mph during all of this and in spite of knowing better, there was enough false lift at the launch that I came back down and did a quick touch and go on the runway as I departed the airport. As always, the first two hours of the flight were used to settle in. I rearranged all my gear so I knew exactly were every item was, just in case I needed to make a snap decision on ballasting. I made a few calls on the satellite phone, found my spot on the map, then sat back to enjoy the view.
The weather forecast was for 5 knots in the morning, increasing to 10 by sunset. At that rate, the distance record was going to take a while to break. But right off the bat I was going over 20, which surprised Don more than it did me. Looked like we were off to a good start.
After three hours I was bored, wondering why I thought two days in a balloon was a good way to spend my vacation. There was nothing much to do and Ė letís face it Ė eastern New Mexico is not the most scenic place on earth. As I approached the Pecos MOA, I called flight service and learned it was active today, a Saturday. The briefer said the MOA extended from 500í above the surface to 16,000í. No problem, Iím in a Rozier, so I got on the burner and flew under it. Then when I had crossed under it, I went back to altitude. Cool. I like this balloon.
A Rozier is a combination hot-air and gas balloon. While it is a relatively complicated balloon, it has all the advantages of both hot air and gas. You have the long flight capacity of a gas balloon and the maneuverability of a hot air balloon. In hot air competitions, a Judge Declared Goal may be called just a few miles from the field. In a Rozier balloon, you could have that same task, only the target could be a day away in the next state. And with the maneuverability of a hot air balloon, itís conceivable you could get quite close to the target.
By the time I left the Pecos MOA behind me, thermals were popping up. Iíve been through lots of thermals with Willie in the gas balloon and I know that until they get really bad, the best thing to do was just relax and enjoy the buffeting. The balloon goes upÖ the balloon goes downÖ the balloon goes around and around. Not too bad today. All you can do is look forward to sunset when they die off. During one of the up cycles, I was approaching pressure altitude and I thought Iíd try the valve. We did not do a preflight pull on the valve, so this would be my first chance to see what sort of effort it took to pull, if I would be able to hear the gas going out and to get an idea of how much of a reaction I would get off a one or two second tug. I pulled and Ö. nothing happens. I pull again, harder, and Ö. nothing happens. I pull really, really hard Ö. and still, nothing happens. A couple of quick phone calls to the inflation crew and they confirm the valve was rigged properly. With that, it looks like I may need to land the balloon without the valve. Not the easiest thing to do, but not the end of the world. The best corollary I can think of is stopping a car precisely at a busy intersection without using the brakes. It can be done, but it has to be done very carefully. Very carefullyÖ
As the sun reached the horizon I had to make the decision about flying through the night. Wind speed is up to about 35 knots, so Iím making good time. The valve doesnít work, which limits when I can land Ė either now or in the morning. The balloon is performing flawlessly. I decide to go into the night. The sun sets and I am no longer bored. I am now reminded of why I wanted to spend two days in a balloon. Darkness approaches and the stars come out. At 8,000í in west Texas far from city lights, I am surrounded by the Milky Way Galaxy. I can see every star. This will be my companion for the next 12 hours. Flying a balloon at night is absolutely the best. Itís so hard to put the feelings into words. To me, itís a surreal experience. On this night, with no moon, it was very dark. There was no way to spot the horizon, so the lights of the cities merged with the lights of the stars. There were no clouds, there was no noise, there was no wind and being a little tired, it was difficult to comprehend that I was in a little basket 5,000í off the ground.
As night wears on, I find Iím not getting the least bit tired. Maybe I am preoccupied trying to figure out how to land this thing. During the evening cooling period, I had ballasted off 3Ĺ bags of sand and went into the night at equilibrium. For now, I am unable to descend. As the night wears on, I begin to think ballasting off was a mistake. The hours slide by, the miles add up. At 12:47 AM, Iím flying over Laverne, OK and I calculate the distance record is mine. I celebrate by taking a photo of myself. I look half asleep.
The duration record will not be broken this flight. Even though the balloon can fly for another day, the prudent thing to do is land at sunrise, before solar heating traps me in the air. During the night my speed continues to increase. With dawn right around the corner, Iím going 50 mph across Kansas in a low level jet. The thunderstorms I saw off in the distance early in the night have been getting closer. Don says they are over Kansas City, which is still quite a ways away. They provide quite a light show, but only minor concern. As it turns out the storms were pretty intense. The National Guard was on call, evacuating people who were trapped by the flooding.
At 4:00 AM I turn on the burners, and heat the helium. This provides lift and take the balloon past pressure altitude. Helium starts spilling out the appendix. The balloon maxís out at 13,200í. I am no longer at equilibrium. On the way down, I get up to 600 fpm which will give me some maneuverability when itís time to land. As dawn begins, I prepare the basket and myself for a quick landing. Don tells me the surface winds should be 10-20 mph at sunrise. Fast, but not too bad. With the distance record well in hand and the thunderstorms starting to look close (still 50 miles distant) I park the balloon in slow winds at 9,000í. Moving just 25 mph, I await sunrise. When it is light enough to see surface features, I decide to make my final landing approach. As I descend, the speed increases as expected from 25 to 30, then 35, then 40. I hit the fast level at 5,500í and I am moving along at 50 mph. No problems, Iím still 4,000 AGL. It should start slowing down now. But as I continue my approach, the speed goes up. 55Ö..then 60... The closer I get to the surface the fast Iím going. The GPS continues to read faster and faster. 65Ö.. then 70Ö. finally topping out at 75 mph when Iím just 800 feet off the deck.
Iím starting to get concerned about the landing. As I search the ground in the predawn light, I donít see trees being up rooted, or small animals rolling down the roads, so I tell myself it canít be this fast on the surface. Finally at 800 feet, I feel the first signs of slowing down. By 300í AGL Iím still going 65 mph and Iím preparing myself for a thrilling landing. This would be much easier if I had a working valve. As it is, I have made the decision to land when I get to the surface, no matter what is there. Fortunately, Iím flying over large open fields in Kansas. If I get lucky, Iíll be ok. At last, I hit a wind shear. The balloon dishes in, the basket rocks and at 200í AGL, I have slowed to 55 mph. Thatís all?? A second shear slows me a bit more. I finally realize Iím landing and I drop the drag line. I cross a barbed wire fence about 10í up and I pop the top. The balloon deflates - way to slowly for me - while I drag across a cut alfalfa field at 30 mph. After a quarter mile, the balloon comes to a stop. Iíve landed. Iím in one piece. Iím safe.
Bruce Krause, a local resident, was following me and drives out in the field to find out what the heck Iím doing. I have so much Adrenaline running through my body, Iím not able to have a coherent conversation with him for an hour. 20 minutes after I touched down, the crew arrives. Mike pulls out the GPS, his notepad and documents the landing. There is minor damage to the balloon, but it will live to see another flight.
As soon as we begin the trip back to ABQ, I fall into a deep sleep. A deep contented sleep.
I can hardly wait to do this again!
This was a team effort. And it was a big team. First and foremost, a great big thanks to Nick Saum for loaning me his balloon. Without that kind gesture, this flight never would have happened. Don Day did a fantastic job provided weather support. I didnít sleep during the entire flight, I donít think he slept either. Vic Johnson, Guy Gauthier and Kevin Uliassi each played a major role in getting components ready to go. Everything worked perfectly. My loyal and trusted crew from Austin Ė Mike and Cynthia Pryor and my wife Michelle who chased me non-stop all night across Kansas and were at the landing site within minutes of the landing. I think I surprised them by being in one piece. And there were lots more folks who provided components, materials, advice and their best wishes.
Editors Note: Greg missed the duration record for AM-3 Roziere balloon by about 3.5 hours. He did earn a distance record of 572 miles. Congratulations to Greg on a job well done!
Here are some pictures from the Inflation and Launch.