Elite pilots prepare for ‘camping out in the sky’ as they compete in prestigious gas balloon race

by Gabriel Martinez
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Ballooning Competition

Elite gas balloon pilots are gearing up for the prestigious Gordon Bennett competition, a gathering that hasn’t occurred in the United States for 15 years. This event, steeped in over a century of history, takes place during an international balloon fiesta in New Mexico. While some concerns have been raised about the balloons being mistaken for spy devices, the pilots’ primary focus is on charting a safe course through the skies.

During this competition, there are no pit stops for refueling or supplies. Pilots must endure days in the air, carrying everything they need for survival in their small baskets. The prevailing winds are expected to carry them through the Midwest and potentially into Canada.

Remarkable records have been set in previous Gordon Bennett competitions, including a Belgian team traveling over 2,112.9 miles in 2005 and a German team staying aloft for over 92 hours in 1995. This year, a German duo, Willi and Benjamin Eimers, aims to defend their title.

Among the American teams participating are Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo, experienced balloonists who face the challenge of fitting into a small basket due to their height. They meticulously prepare their equipment, including radio, transponder, GPS unit, and provisions for the journey.

Another U.S. entry, Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, bring a wealth of experience to the competition. Sullivan holds records for the most gas balloon flights, while White has participated 14 times, the most by a female pilot. This year’s event is noteworthy as it collaborates with hydrogen company BayoTech to fill the race balloons, addressing the previous scarcity of hydrogen.

Competitive gas ballooning remains an exclusive pursuit, but efforts are underway to train a new generation of pilots. Technological advancements have improved equipment, making it lighter and more efficient. Pilots also meticulously manage their weight, shedding pounds to add ballast for better flight control.

Gas balloons differ from the hot air balloons seen at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta; they use hydrogen, which can expand and contract with temperature changes. Teams dress in layers to combat the extreme temperature fluctuations during the flight.

Despite the inherent risks and uncertainties of gas ballooning, pilots like Sullivan find the experience of flying at high altitudes to be a thrilling adventure. Each flight offers a unique and unforgettable journey through the skies.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Balloon Racing

Q: What is the Gordon Bennett competition?

A: The Gordon Bennett competition is a prestigious gas balloon race that gathers elite pilots from around the world. It has a history dating back over a century and is considered one of the most prestigious events in aviation.

Q: How often does the Gordon Bennett competition take place in the United States?

A: The Gordon Bennett competition in the United States is relatively rare, occurring approximately every 15 years. It has been held in the U.S. only 13 times before, with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta hosting it five times.

Q: What are the main challenges faced by pilots in the Gordon Bennett competition?

A: Pilots in the Gordon Bennett competition face challenges such as enduring days in the air with no stops for refueling or resupplying. They must chart courses to avoid bad weather and make the most of wind currents. The competition is a test of endurance, navigation, and strategy.

Q: Are there any notable records or achievements associated with this competition?

A: Yes, there are notable records set in previous Gordon Bennett competitions. For instance, a Belgian team traveled over 2,112.9 miles in 2005, and a German team holds the record for staying aloft the longest, over 92 hours, achieved in 1995.

Q: How do pilots prepare for the Gordon Bennett competition?

A: Pilots meticulously prepare their equipment, including radio, transponder, and GPS units. They also carefully manage their weight, shedding pounds to add ballast for better flight control. Dried foods and essential supplies are carried onboard.

Q: What distinguishes gas balloons from hot air balloons?

A: Gas balloons use hydrogen, which is lighter than air, to stay aloft. Unlike hot air balloons, which use heated ambient air, gas balloons must manage ballast to control altitude as the gas expands and contracts with temperature changes.

Q: How do pilots cope with extreme temperatures during the flight?

A: Pilots dress in layers, including long johns, hats, gloves, and hand warmers, to combat the frigid overnight and morning hours at high altitudes. They adjust their clothing as the temperature fluctuates during the day.

Q: What motivates pilots to participate in this challenging competition?

A: Pilots are motivated by the thrill and adventure of flying at high altitudes. Despite the inherent risks and uncertainties, they find the experience of navigating the skies in gas balloons to be a unique and unforgettable journey.

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