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At home & away: Hydrogen balloons head northeast

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly all of the balloons competing in the 2017 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race eclipsed the distance traveled by last year’s winning team, Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke – including Cuneo and Fricke.

Last year, the team traveled 866 miles, setting down west of Hannibal, Mo., after a flight of 54 hours and 39 minutes.

All of the teams this year generally were headed in a northeasterly direction, with many on course to cross the Great Lakes and continue into Canada. All but one had exceeded 1,000 miles by Monday evening.

Winners of the America’s Challenge are determined solely by the distance traveled. The distance record of 1,998 miles was set in 2000 by David and Alan Leven of the United States, said race spokeswoman Kim Vesely.

Hydrogen balloons participating in the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race during the lengthy inflation process before launching Saturday afternoon at Balloon Fiesta Park. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

There are no cash prizes associated with the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race; the top three teams from the United States, however, qualify to participate in the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett, the world’s premier gas balloon distance race. It will be held next year in Switzerland, Vesely said.

Balloons in the America’s Challenge race contain about 37,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, about half the volume of a small hot air balloon. They can fly up to 18,000 feet in altitude, according to race rules. Pilots adjust for altitude by releasing ballast – sand from sandbags or water from containers – in order to ascend; they descend by venting gas from the balloon.

The teams sit in open baskets, which do not have to be made from wicker but generally are. They carry enough food and water for the race duration, as well as protective clothing, a camping toilet, a night vision scope, a range finder to determine altitude in the dark, lights, a satellite phone and an emergency locator beacon.

As of 7 p.m. Monday, according to the official Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta tracking map, the Swiss team of Nicolas Tieche and Laurent Sciboz in the balloon “Fribourg-Freiburg Challenge” held the lead with a distance of 1,618 miles. They had crossed Lake Superior and were heading for the eastern border of the province of Ontario.

In second place was the American team of Cuneo and Fricke, whose “Foxtrot Charlie” balloon had traveled 1,441 miles. They had crossed Lake Michigan as well as Lake Huron.

In third place was Krzysztof Zapart of Poland and Andy Cayton of the United States. Their balloon, “Misia,” flying under the flag of Poland, had traveled 1,276 miles. They were flying over the Hiawatha National Forest in upper Michigan.

The Darth Vader balloon inflates Monday morning, but excessive winds prevented it and other special-shape balloons from launching. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In fourth place was the American team of Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, whose “Delta Goodie” balloon had traveled 1,212 miles and was northwest of Fort Wayne, Ind.

In fifth place, the French team of Benoit Pelard and Benoit Peterle had flown 1,104 miles in their balloon “Marie Marvingt” and were west of Indianapolis, Ind.

In sixth place was the American team of Phil Bryant and Mike Emich. Their balloon, “Air Apparent II,” had traveled 1,102 miles when they landed south and west of Bloomington, Ind., about 3:20 p.m. They had been aloft for 44 hours and 8 minutes.

In seventh place, the German team of Wilhelm and Sebastian Eimers flew their balloon, “Russian Record Factory,” 1,094 miles when they landed south and west of Wausau, Wis., after a flight of 47 hours and 3 minutes.

In last place were Bert Padelt and Noah Forden of the United States. They were the first team to drop out. Their balloon, “Across the Universe,” set down just before 7 a.m., Monday, about 38 miles northwest of Des Moines. They had been aloft for 36 hours and 16 minutes and had gone 821 miles.

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