What an adventurous flight at the America’s Challenge 2014!
Landing (even) after 45 hours at night near a thunderstorm in Omaha / Nebraska!
But now everything step by step.
In early October we flew with our crew to Albuquerque, the Mecca of hot air balloon pilots, and this year again the starting point of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon race with seven teams from Germany, Poland, Spain and the United States.
After a stylish opening party with american/mexican food and delicious Magharitas and well-organized briefings, including very extensive weather bulletins, the Saturday evening was a possible launch day.
So we started filling sand bags in the afternoon and the preparations on 4th October. Unfortunately the wind was gusting over 20 kt so that the start had to be moved to Monday evening, because of the 24-hour rest periods of the hydrogen-truck drivers.
The launch should have been on monday night, but again the wind didn’t decrease as intended. So we had to wait.
But the wind calmed down and after small problems during the filling, the parachute rope had a thick tangle, we were finally able to start at 1:01 am on Tuesday morning.
What a wonderful view over Albuquerque at night! We climbed up carefully and flew to the south-east to the mountains. We had 15kt windspeed, but resembled the turbulence with ballast, so we flew later in the night flat over the level in the moonlight light.
But what was that? We had heard a noise above Albuquerque, but had dismissed it as a city noise, but now here in the deserted area was clearly heard this slight hiss. Was the parachute maybe leaking? A little pull, but the noise remained. So we had to check the ballast the whole night.
Anyway, we flew with this course around an active restricted area. In the morning we climbed a little higher because of the sun and the direction was northeast to Texas , which was discussed with our weather man and tactician David Strasmann to bypass the thunderstorm, which was announced for the southern part of Texas.
Our tactic was to go for 60 hours. Furthermore, we didn’t hear any noise during the daytime and the ballast loss was limited. So we went over New Mexico, Texas or Oklahoma later, and this breadth of landscape is fantastic. We saw these giant fields ,the mile-long trains, aswell as canyons in Oklahoma.
But what you also have to say that the thermals over the great plains were huge and so we moved several times down.
Near Elk City, Oklahoma we went into the next night. We were still trying to climb to FL110 in order to test whether there were a stronger winds east, but it was quite calm, so we went rather further northeast towards Kansas.
In the morning we were in Kansas, up to FL 130, but could still hear the cows even above the clouds during moving on to Kansas City. In the US, the radio-communication is much easier than in EU, so that even large military areas were not a problem. Also we could fly around the active regions very well.
At the end of the day we could see a large cloud layer. David told us, that more than 100 Miles away a storm front came from the northwest to the southeast. There was the possibility to get some rain. And so we went through the cloud layer, which pulled up to us to FL100. In the moonlight we watched the clouds slowly grew up around us. „Lightning 50 Miles!“ ,we heard from David, and the controller also told us the same.
We were getting faster and the course was more east. We continued to monitor the clouds and scanned the horizon for more lightning, but no lights could be seen. Sleeping was impossible. Should the front pass us by? ‚Then David’s SMS came : „Lightning in 10 Miles, land immediately!“ Some seconds later the same information came by radio from the controller! So we get ready for landing, closed the parachute and the, filling socket. Than we descended with 4 m/s from FL100 through the clouds and continued to monitor the horizon. Now we were below the clouds and Nebraska was below us. We could dimly see the large fields, the easily lit farm houses and the streets. We knew near the streets are wires, so we searched for a great field!
Luckily our „autopilot“ balloon did everything alone, now descending with 2.5 m/s at 1000ft above ground. Lightning on the horizon! Information from the controller that there was a flash 5 Miles away ! The balloon stabilized at 1.5 m/s and flew to a large, dark field. We took the searchlight, but we saw only something brown. So we took some sand bags and continued descending, „Flash 5 Miles“ we heard in the radio, lightning around us, basic approach, sacks out, opened the parachute and touch down!
A small hopping, that was all. The gusts were to hard to stay. We stood 500 meters away from the streets in a soybean field. But whether north or south, everywhere were lightning and suddenly, in the south, a few miles away, a flash!
Then we got out the hydrogen and the hull fell on the approximately 80 cm high soybean scrub. Quickly we call our chasing team, 100 Miles away in a hotel and then we stored the instruments, as it started to rain.
What do you do now after landing at midnight in a soybean field in Nebraska? While I gave the landing position to the headquarter or already took some pictures, my wife went to a nearby farm house and knocked on the door. Even when tapped she thought, „Oh, what am I doing now?“ But no one opened the door, and she also did not hear the click of a weapon, she came back to the basket. A few minutes later we saw 2 police cars with searchlights driving around the field . We moved our night flight position light,so that they could see us. Now a wonderful scene was created:
You have to imagine it from the side with moonlight. On one hand side we went with our suits as Michelin Men and with headlamps, to the policeman on the opposite side, who starred with his flashlight into the field. The police probably saw us and behind in the field only a large white disk . What will they have thought? An UFO? Aliens?
Anyway, we came closer and closer. For safety reasons, we shone our head lamps at our body along, so that the officer could see that we carried no weapons.
And so we stood in the middle of the field by moonlight opposite. The Deputy saw that we were not aliens and after a friendly greeting, he asked, of course, after what had happened, if we needed help, where we came from and who we are.
After we told him that we are Germans balloon pilots and were launched in Albuerque with our gas balloon a few nights ago, he wanted to see our passports. We told him that our chasing team, which would be arrived in the next few hours, had our passports.
„I could give you my gold credit card,“ I asked him. I gave him my credit card. He checked the card by radio . Everything was alright and he gave it back to me and after some small talk we said goodbye. He still wanted to inform the neighbor of our remaining in the field and said that sometimes there were some coyotes and we could call him any time at 911.
Anyway, I can say now that it is not important to have a passport in the US, you only need a credit card!
So we went to our basket, armed us with a knife and hammer and heared the ululation of some coyotes. When our chasers finally arrived there, we packed the most important tools in the van and slept the rest of the night in the car. In the morning we wore the hull and the bag through the field to the vehicle. What kind of work!
Just as we were set off, the lady of the neighbor house came. Linda was so sorry that she could not help in the night, she was feared because of several robberies in the area. Then she invited us for breakfast with coffee and muffins . That is american hospitality!
We had to get over 600 Miles back to Albuquerque, where the very beautiful Awards Ceremony took place in a nice atmosphere on Saturday. The winner was the Spanish team Gonzales / Aguirre, second the Polish (Zapart / Rekas) and third place the American team (Cuneo / Fricke).
Then we made a small sightseeing tour with our team so that we could still visit the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde.
Anyway, we are satisfied with the result in our first participation. We were able to occupy the 4th place, despite such as leakage and thunderstorms, , even our ballast would have been enough for one more day.
Of course we want thank our team: Lara and Tim Lausch, Karin and Hermann Böke, Ulrike Müller and Charly and especially our weatherman David Strasmann.