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Three teams still aloft in America’s Challenge

Gas balloon tracking map 2016 as of 11:40 a.m. MDT

Click on the map to see latest positions of  balloons still aloft in the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Three teams were still aloft Friday evening in the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race after French pilots Benoit Pelard and Laurent Lajoye landed their balloon, Marie Marvingt, just after 4 p.m. south of Klagetoh, Ariz., having flown nearly 16 hours and 163 miles.

The clear leader remains the Polish team of Krzyszrtof Zapart and Bazyli Dawidziuk, flying Misia. As of about 10 p.m., they had traveled 638 miles. The wind had changed their trajectory, and they bent to the south over southeast Oklahoma and headed into northeast Texas.

In second place is the team of Bert Padelt of Pennsylvania and Noah Forden of Rhode Island in One Leg Out. According to the race tracking map, they caught a wind that was carrying them toward the north. They were over the Oklahoma panhandle and had flown 331 miles.

Not far behind are Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke, both of Albuquerque. Their balloon, Foxtrot Charlie, was over the southwest corner of Kansas. They had traversed 317 miles, crossing over the Oklahoma panhandle.

The gas balloon team of Texan Philip Bryant and Ohioan Mike Emich in Here We Go Again apparently didn't get far. According to the race tracking map, they landed about 8:18 a.m. in a remote area of Santa Ana Pueblo, west of Algodones, covering a mere 15 miles.

A sixth team consisting of Mark Sullivan and Cheri White withdrew from the race late Thursday due to Sullivan's lingering ear infection. The infection would have been exacerbated by the high altitude, race spokeswoman Kim Vesely said.

White earlier in the week competed against 15 other women balloonists to win the U.S. Women's National Championship in her hot air balloon, Touchstone Racer. She had the best scores from 11 separate tasks in which markers with trailing streamers were thrown onto ground targets located throughout the metro area and on the balloon field.

After a one-day delay, the America's Challenge competitors launched from Balloon Fiesta Park at about 11:45 p.m. Thursday. The America's Challenge is the qualifying event for American teams vying to compete in the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett gas balloon race, which will be held next year in Switzerland.

Racing balloons contain about 37,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, about half the volume of a small hot air balloon. They fly in the range of 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet, and the pilots adjust for altitude by releasing sand from sandbags to ascend and venting gas to descend.

The flights usually last two or three days. The teams sit in open wicker baskets, and they generally 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, an emergency locator beacon and a life raft, should the winds carry them across water.

Weather forecasts for the race initially showed that the balloonists would head up into the Midwest and possibly cross into the Great Lakes region.

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Pilot Philip Bryant of Houston, TX and crew member Dave Smith of Durango, CO, at right, from left, work on the vent of the “Air Apparent II” before inflation for the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race on Thursday, October 6, 2016. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

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Hydrogen gas tanker trucks wait on the tarmac at Balloon Fiesta Park Thursday evening, where they will fill the balloons competing in the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race.

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