Report from Joschi Starkbaum

Because American David Levin and James Herschend had won the Gordon Bennett Race the previous year, the race this year was to be launched from Albuquerque, New Mexico, embedded in the annual hot-air balloon fiesta.

Our team consisted of Dr. Herbert Pümpel, Hansruedi and Christine Walther as ground crew and Rainer Röhsler and me as pilots.

Albuquerque is not frequented by wide-body aircraft, so the journey there with our special basket was a bit difficult. We flew to Los Angeles and then drove about 1400 kilometres to Albuquerque with a rented chase car.

The Albuquerque Fiesta is a mass meeting with more than 600 hot-air balloons. The balloons take off in three waves, while thousands of spectators walk free on the launch field between the balloons. For an uninvolved spectator, it was fascinating, but at 5 – 8 knots, for a pilot keen on safety, it was hair rising.

For the launch of the Gordon Bennett Race, the place was closed from noon and not reopened for the spectators before the balloons were inflated and the gas transports had driven off. Despite the distant travel to Albuquerque, 20 balloons were there to compete, among them for the first time three from Austria. Besides us flew the teams Johann Fürstner/Sepp Huber and Thomas Lewetz/Silvia Wagner.

The weather situation: Albuquerque was near to the axis of a high pressure wedge running northeast. In the Northwest was a low pressure area, guiding a dragging front system in a north-easterly direction. East of the Rockies, “low level jet” to the Northeast was forecast, which should later be broken up by the frontal system.

My strategy, was the same as of most of the other pilots, which follows: By flying low we wanted to try to come closer to the low pressure area, to reach the faster winds to enter the “low level let” later.

At the drawing of the launch sequence we had got number 13. Did this mean something? On October 4th 1993 at 8:34 p.m. we lifted off in calm winds under the sound of our national anthem in a solemn mood.

Because Albuquerque is on a sea level of about 5000 ft. and the balloons were filled with helium, we had got only 22 bags of ballast. Already at 300 ft. above ground we flew with 10 – 12 kilometres an hour to the North, running parallel to the Sandia Mountain ridge, so we did not have to cross it. At the north end of the Sandia Mountains we turned to the Northeast and the flight speeded up a little. Everything seemed to be working like planned. But not for long, because the direction turned further to the right. We had a wonderful, calm flight at moonlight, sometimes just 5 meters above ground. Unfortunately, we flew a big circle to the right and then a half circle to the left, so a 5 o’ clock in the morning we were just 10 kilometres north of the launch field, but had flown about 100 kilometres above ground. This was not very encouraging; nevertheless our position relatively to the low pressure area had improved a little, because the system had moved east. By climbing to 2000 ft. above ground we entered a drift to the Northwest flying directly towards the centre of the low pressure area. Short before sunrise we saw the first hot air balloons of the fiesta taking off, later the entire field. At noon we were above the high plateau of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Until then, the flight had been very calm. Suddenly, without warning, the balloon started to climb with 5 meters per second. At 15,000 ft. the climbing stopped and the balloon started a violent swinging up to an angle of 45° out of the vertical axle. This enduring swinging made the nerves in my stomach rebel. With the same suddenness the climbing had started, 10 minutes later the falling began. Our variometer only reads up to 5 meters per second. The pointer was at the stop. Impossible, to empty the sand bags, there wasn’t enough time for it. I just cut them away bag by bag. We were above a wilderness, so there was no danger doing that. Also the bags went empty automatically before impact, because they were of an open design. Five meters above the forest, the balloon stabilised for a few minutes.

Then this up and down started again, but not as severe as at the first time. During this heavy thermal activity cumulus clouds have formed, either turning to rain showers or spreading as alto-cumulus, shading the insulation thus ending this horrific episode. Anyhow, this episode had lasted 25 minutes and had reduced our ballast down to ten bags.

Our distance to the launch field was now about 100 kilometres and close to the ground we slowly drifted back to Albuquerque. When we were approaching a terrain with a road where we could land, for a short time the idea to finish the flight came up. But as a matter of principle, I never break off a competition when I have 10 bags of ballast left, so I decided, to climb again slowly. And really, at about 2000 ft. above ground we found a layer that made us move to the Northeast from 3 p.m. on. This direction seemed to maintain, so we ordered our chase crew, still at the hotel, to start. And really, this drift to the Northeast kept on until sunset. Caused by the cooling in the evening, we sank towards the town of Taos, from where we flew north close to the ground. About two hours after sunset we approached cone shaped Ute Peak in the middle of a valley.

I had hoped, that this cone shaped mountain would guide the airflow a little to the left, allowing us to continue flying low, thus approaching the low pressure area and the faster winds. But none of this happened as we had to fly straight across the peak in 11,000 ft. At this altitude we continued from 9 p.m. to the Northeast with 25 – 30 kilometres an hour. After having crossed the Sangre de Christo Mountains, we had nothing but the boundless plains of the Middle West in front of us.

Sleeping alternately we flew the whole night without dumping any ballast. At morning, the balloon started to fall slowly and the speed increased to 60 kilometres an hour. The ‘low level jet’, we had waited for so long, was reached. The superheating made us climb again, but speed did not become less than 50 kilometres an hour. From 9 p.m. the evening before till 2:30 p.m. the next day, 17.5 hours, no ballast was used.

After the evening cooling had come to an end, there was enough ballast for a third night over Grand Island. Considering a ground wind of 15 – 20 knots at the airfield of Grand Island, the desire to land was not big. We still had enough distance to the front system; it should catch us up not before noon the next day. So I decided to fly the night. The direction close to the ground was 40° with 60 – 70 kilometres an hour, above that 70° with 40 – 50 kilometres an hour. So the goal was, to fly as fast as possible without coming too close to the front system. A glance at the map and a rough calculation showed, that we would reach Lake Michigan before noon. This lake is 100 – 150 kilometres wide and 500 kilometres long, thus having an enormous influence on the air stream. Crossing the Lake under this situation was impossible.

With the cooling at night, the ground wind decreased, so on one hand, we had to land before the warming up at daytime makes the upper wind influence the wind speeds on the ground, on the other hand, the landing should happen as close as possible to the Lake, to enlarge the distance to the place of launch.

As compromise, we landed at Campbellsport, approximately 30 kilometres ahead of the lake, with gusty wind between 5 and 15 knots. Our chase crew was on the field 45 minutes later for they had to drive round a huge swamp area shortly before we touched down.

With duration of 59 hours and 29 minutes and a great-circle distance of 1832 kilometres this was my longest flight. Compared to the previous Gordon Bennett Race Gordon Bennett Races, when we did not fly a third night, this race was less straining, means, we were less exhausted. I see three reasons for that:

We never became wet; but it had rained close to us the first day.
We never felt cold. Even at night in 10,000 – 12,000 ft. temperature was not below the freezing level, so we did not use the sleeping bag at all.
There had been no political boundaries or restricted areas of prohibited entry at all.
Very pleasing from the Austrian point of view are also the results of the two other teams. Lewetz/Wagner made the 4th and Fürstner/Huber the 9th rank. In a ranking of nations, several times discussed, Austria had also won.

Looking back, this trip to America was a great experience. But in spite of that, we will make efforts to host the next races in Europe again.

Joschi Starkbaum

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