Report from Rainer Röhsler
In the background you can hear our national anthem, it’s ten to eight on Monday evening – Thomas just took off as second – quite a farce over there – I’m lucky if we get out of here soon. We are quite well organized; despite the hectic everything looks quite nice. Now again our national anthem, it’s our turn – we will soon lift off – it’s 20:31 o’clock.
In the moment, we leave Albuquerque in about 1500 feet above ground to the North – passing the Sandia Mountains. Above the Sandia Mountains now the moon is rising. Finally it becomes calm – below of us only a few dogs are barking.
We now fly in the direction of Santa Fe, have circled the Sandia Peak, the moon is full up, and the shadow of our balloon on the ground looks beautiful. Joschi is phoning with Herbert Pümpel at the Hilton, we send the crew sleeping. It is amazingly bright, very fine clouds in the sky, our drift is now 11 kilometres an hour to 82 degrees.
TUESDAY MORNING, 02:00
Quite warm, we are on the east slope of the Sandia Mountain, there’s not much progress. I must have had a sleep for an hour or two; one may be closer to the truth. Warm and dry, the warm jacket is enough; you don’t need the down-filled jacket. Strictly speaking we fly zigzag, what we flew to the southeast before we now fly again to the northwest.
With the valley wind we have completed the half circle back in the direction of Albuquerque and then climbed a little. Now we are at about 7000 ft. and slowly commenced speeding up again, towards Santa Fe.
We still trundle at 7000 ft. between Albuquerque and Santa Fee. In the east is morning twilight, Joschi tries in vain to sleep a little bit, and over Albuquerque you can already see the hot air balloons that took off at night to make ‘Dawn Patrol’. In an hour we will see the first big wave of the hot air balloons.
Now we fly to 330 degrees with 14 kilometres an hour in 7300 feet – somehow different than expected before. We just flew above an Indian reservation – below it looks like chief Big Foot would ride round the corner any moment. Supposed we have to cancel Santa Fe, we now fly in the direction of Taos. Unbelievable, how far away a highway may be and you still hear the noise.
We have just reported our position to Albuquerque, fly in 335 degrees towards Colorado, the area is already quite high here, but still looks quite harmless, like the foothills of the Alps with some rocks in it or like the Swiss Jura – the leaves of the trees start to change their colours, very much coniferous forest – almost totally wooded it looks beautiful. Sun – our solar panel works and we climb steadily. The others fly 90 degrees to another direction. We’ll see, how this ends up.
We approach the reservation or the National Park. It’s an extreme beautiful landscape, pastures, and the leaves of the trees in all possible colours, lot of conifers, absolute silence. From time to time you can hear an aeroplane passing by – and our direction is now towards the boundary to Colorado. In a minute we will cross 36° latitude.
Conditions are quite thermally, we are still above the National Park, rush up there to 10.000 ft and again almost to the ground – costs quite a lot of ballast, but the direction has turned to 130 – now it just turned to 74 – would be good, but it’s doubtful if it stays like this.
Now it’s a situation like in a roller coaster. He had shot up to 13.000 ft within 3 to 4 minutes without being involved, it’s full thermally and we fly around swaying. We are just underneath a cumulus – but it’s a harmless one. I will take the oxygen now again.
The stupid thing is, that me make no progress, just sway around. Thanks goodness I’ve got rid of my cold in time; otherwise I would have a real problem now with this up and down.
Joschi becomes a little green in his face – he has a problem with this swaying, because he gets sick. But his sickness can be levelled out quite well with the oxygen. Now he just cares to stop the fall in time – we have 4.5 meters per second.
We went up and down for some times and have used up an enormous amount of ballast, we have reported our position to Albuquerque – so they know exactly, where we are. Joschi thinks about landing – because we fly back again – and he thinks, everything may worsen, because the whole system is turning round.
It is very, very thermal and the situation isn’t easy. We are still above the National Forest and have to reach a road there. It’s not a dangerous area, more uncomfortable to be picked up. Now waypoint 10 becomes visible.
We have 9 bags of ballast left and until a short time ago, we had thought about landing. Already wanted to get the chase crew and the observer here, which we are going to try now in any case, they just did not respond to the phone, even if the phone works well.
We are now beneath the cloud-cover of a cumulus, looking medium venomously; tragically our direction is absolutely unusable. We almost fly back to Albuquerque – our heading to Albuquerque would be 163°, range 96 kilometres, we fly to 123° with many changes.
Joschi has stopped wearing this green colour of his face and already looks like after a week on the Bahamas and can’t keep quiet again – that’s a good sign at him.
This swaying has calmed down. To understand this a while ago right, I have to tell, that the plateau, where all of this had played, has an altitude between 8000 and 9000 ft., so everything was on a quite high level in the words real meaning.
Now it’s a little calm again, we had coffee and fly in nearly 12.000 ft heading 52° with 16 kilometres an hour. Looks quite well, and the area ahead appear to be quite uncomplicated – a little mountain, but we’ll pass it somehow on the left or on the right.
On the horizon is quite a huge forest fire, giving us a giant wind indicator, also a mountain that looks like the Table Mountain of Cape Town and behind it a valley with a small lake, looking a little more like desert – except the lake – and the area below us is still a part of this high plateau, with nice coloured birch trees among the conifers.
From time to time we suck on the oxygen and Joschi already finds time to pee, that’s also a good sign.
The guy in the competition centre at Albuquerque is very friendly, although not being very competent in ballooning, he had helped us well and always recorded our position and realized that he could make a relay – a little irksome was, that he has set a newspaper reporter on us on another frequency – we did not realize before we responded – well, we tried to be as polite as possible.
If I would play music now, I would probably play the one from “Dancing with wolves”, because in this movie it looked like underneath of us. Chatting we found out, that a while ago, it was the longest duration of a turbulence we had ever seen. 27 minutes isn’t bad. And we have always seen our envelope from its side.
We just had contact with our chase-crew on the phone; they are still at the Hilton and did now set off to follow us. Our information about the weather is, that this stuff from the North enters faster, at least faster as expected, also the instability was higher because of the humidity that had interfered – that’s what we had to fight with – Herbert thinks, if these Cumuli round of us would break up until 5 p.m., it should work trough the night.
We have a nice flight now in 12500 ft. with 46° and 20 kilometres an hour, by the way, the spot we are approaching now is named Ghost Ranch.
Radio: ‘Say something nice, Sepperl’ – ????? – ‘Because we’ve lost so much ballast unnecessarily’ – ‘The same has happened to us’ – ‘Sepperl, we’ve been tossed, very impressive, between ground and 15.000 feet and Joschi had said, this was the longest turbulence he’d ever been in, and we did not throw them out, but just cut them away one by one, the baggies’ – ‘to our basket, every kind of dust was blown inside’ – ‘yes, yes, sounds familiar to me’ – ‘over where you are, it might have been even a little harder’ – ‘we had been over a high plateau, there was not much run out to come down, basic was at 8 to 9.000 feet and you had to pay much attention, not to hit the ground, have a good flight, and there’s another information from Herbert Pümpel’.
All around it starts to become blue again, only aside of us the smoke of the forest fire climbs up to our altitude 12.500 feet.
Joschi discovers his play instinct at the GPS, he falls in love with the electronic, must have to do something with the altitude. Below, we can see now Santa Fe and Taos. We have seen a lot of Santa Fe within the last 24 hours – well, 24 is a little exaggerated – and round about it’s all Indian territory: Navajos, Comanches – all of that we have in sight, somewhere they will then probably dub in this John Wayne.
We are at 13.300 ft and fly to 34° with 21 kilometres an hour and just had contact with the case crew, they wait for us between Santa Fe and Taos. Now it is quite stable and the sun is already low.
I had just cleaned up the basket, removing the quarry on the ground, when dumping ballast in the thermals; we always overtook the sand in the fall, so a lot re-collected in the basket.
In the background we see Taos. From our altitude, the mountains look quite flat. I will lie down for a while now.
Joschi has had a deep slumber, but when the situation changed – we went into a fall – he could not be stopped to take over by himself again.
TUESDAY IN THE EVENING, IT’S NOW 20:00
We have cooked a proper dinner. It works quite well now, heading between 20° and 30° with a nice speed, close to the ground. We had been high first, then close to the ground with 20 to 25 kilometres an hour, now it has slowed down. The problem is now, that the moon has not risen and down there it’s ultra pale black and we fly quite low, because we want to cross the mountains there a little later.
We now fly in the direction of Los Alamos VOR and have just helped as a relay for Huber Sepp. He has landed and we have explained to an aircraft, where Taos is and how his chase crew can find him. We don’t have good radio contact with our own chase crew right now, but they’ll find their way.
It’s less than 1/8 of clouds and a very clear starry sky, underneath something like desert with some animals from time to time.
Unfortunately, the moon still has not risen and it’s still pale black. We have smuggled ourselves quite close over a “hill” of 10.000 feet and by that we climbed so high, that we also over flew the main ridge, that was between us and the plains. We are again on 11.300 ft and Joschi just takes the first mouthful of oxygen.
We just cross the last ridge of the huge Sangre de Christo Mountains before this turns in those Central Plains, at the multiple states corner of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. There is snow on those ridges, which we race across quite close. It’s a very low population area, there are almost no lights, but the moon helps us now very much, it is already considerably high above the horizon.
WEDNESDAY MORNING, A LITTLE AFTER MIDNIGHT
We now fly in 10.500 ft with 33 kilometres an hour, track 50°. I had just slept for an hour, wonderful and deep, woke up to weather information from Herbert, that Joschi discussed with him on the radio. – Now Joschi lies down a little.
It works quite well, I just had some coffee, and the way that we cook water proves well.
The problem with the ground wind today will be, that it perhaps becomes a little too fast. We’ll see.
WEDNESDAY MORNING, 04:14
We fly on in 7.300 ft with 31 to 35 kilometres an hour, it varies a little. We fly in 49° in the direction to the VOR Lamar.
It has become severe cold. I’m on guard since midnight, it works quite well and I feel good. Joschi just got up for a peeing break. We believed we see another balloon down in the dark, which was very impressive. I’ve already seen three shooting stars – but real nice, big ones.
The area below is absolutely uninhabited, nothing within 100 kilometres.
We are now above a place called Lamar, direction and altitude unchanged. Now Joschi takes over and I’ll try, to sleep again a little.
WEDNESDAY MORNING, 06:30
Since midnight we had to dump no ballast. We just fly at 2.000 ft above ground over huge fields, it’s warm and now the sun rises. I had a sleep for about 1½ hours and woke up by the warmth.
Mood is perfect, I’ve just phoned home and we make a good speed.
There’s not much to tell, except, that since yesterday evening we dumped nothing but the sh.. of Joschi. We fly on in 13.500 ft, heading 39° with about 30 kilometres an hour, it’s all well, we feel good, but the area is boring.
WEDNESDAY EVENING 19:45
The area looks like it always did, very flat, those famous fields of one square mile. But slowly, it becomes more populated, we now aim at Fort Dodge, still 241 kilometres away, but we fly with 58 kilometres an hour in 7.500 ft.
I hope that Joschi will sleep the first turn; we wait for the meteorological front expected for the morning. We had been told, that ground wind is too fast for landing, but we wanted to continue the whole night anyway.
Today was quite uneventful. When descending – we were up to at least 14.000 ft – we caught this ‘Southern Jet Stream’ between 7 and 8.000 ft and ride it now.
In the evening we’ve passed Omaha, Nebraska, where we reported to an incredibly nice air-traffic controller.
We now rack our brains about how this will work out with the Great Lakes with our speed and direction. Ground wind is still quite fast, up here we make about 60 kilometres an hour in 6.000 ft and the track is 73°.
We fly in the direction of Milwaukee – had contact to the chase crew a minute ago. I’m on the night shift and allow Joschi to sleep as long as somehow possible, so that he has power for the landing.
THURSDAY MORNING, 04:00
We rush on at 5.000 ft with 70 to 75 kilometres per hour in the direction of Milwaukee, a little right from it; I just gave away an interesting part of ballast. Joschi has got up – that means, I woke him up, because I believed, to see a significant hill ahead, but it proved to be a fake.
The light isn’t any longer as good as it was in the past two days, but the area becomes more populated, there are more single lights.
THURSDAY, ABOUT 06:30
At 6:10 we had radio contact with our chase crew for the last time. We are now approaching our expected landing area – Fond du Lac – it’s still very fast, we make about 70 kilometres per hour, but allegedly it is calmer on the ground, 6 to 7 knots – believe it or not – we’ll see.
We used the vent for the first time and it worked at once. On the ground it’s still calm and we hope, it stays like this.
Also radio contact to the chase crew is there again, they are already in the target area – they are really good. They also gave us wind information, the whole profile.
Joschi is invisibly slapping his thigh, for the GPS shows a distance of 1.800 kilometres from Albuquerque. We have to send the chase crew round a swampy area, quite huge, but we want them to be present in the moment of the landing.
Below it’s a little calmer – allegedly – and perhaps we can fly a little north in the ground layer to be then caught by the chase crew.
THURSDAY MORNING, 08:08
We just hit the ground, terribly fast. We also got caught in a little tree. Joschi can’t remember, if he took his clothes off or if they were ripped off. To our luck there was a small, red maple tree.
Now it’s 8:12 and this happened about 6 minutes ago. At 8:12 the sheriff is already at the basket.
The only arguing between Joschi and me was about the time to land. My idea was, it would have been clever to land, as long as it was calm on the ground. Joschi even had drawn my attention to smoke that rose vertically from a thermal power plant.
Joschi thinks, the landing was at 08:03 Albuquerque time. He has just returned from the field to the basket to bring me my lost GPS. From the first impact to the little red maple tree 137 steps, from there to the final rest of the basket 70 steps.
I’m sitting on the plane to Los Angeles, to fly back to Vienna from there. With a little distance to what happened, a summary:
Our chase crew was there quick, only in the last moments; they had lost us out of sight. The sheriff and the guys at the landing field had been incredibly nice. Almost as quick as the sheriff a television team was there, to do an interview with us. I explained to them, that if they want to hear from us, what has happened, they must organize a flight to Chicago and a shuttle to the next airport for us. As we found out, the next airport was Oshkosh.
Typical Americans, they agreed at once, to the pleasure of Herbert, who so was able to reach his AUA flight to Vienna.
The whole situation then relaxed very much; also Joschi might have reflected a little about what had happened. We still thought, that we did not perform well.
Changing planes at Chicago was also a bit difficult, because we had no reservation and no tickets – but that could be organized. Via Denver, we then flew ‘home’, i.e. to the Hilton, and arrived at Albuquerque at 11 p.m. From the airport, I phoned to the hotel, that someone would pick us up. Thomas Hora came to the phone and his first words were: ‘You already know, that you have won!?’
I then returned to Joschi, who wasn’t anything more but radio controlled at that time, but this news made him a partner in talks again. Back at the hotel, I was so wound up, that I couldn’t go to sleep but to my pleasure I met Jackie Robertson, girl friend and co-pilot of Alan Fraenckel. We then went to the bar and had a bottle of wine together.
If you believe, that flying for 60 hours gives you a real good sleep, you are wrong, because in the middle of the night I woke up by an air condition unit that had switched on and I believed, I’m somewhere over Kansas and a train passes underneath. I also believed, that I will have to care for the balloon again in a moment. By the way, the same happened to me once again the next night. To our great pleasure we learned, that all of those in the front rows belonged to our circle of friends, we shared our joy especially with Alan and Jackie and with Thomas and Silvia. I was a little sad, that David Levin had been so unlucky and that weather strokes him so much the first day. But one has to pay him a lot of respect, for the courage to end a flight, if the weather doesn’t fit any longer counts at least as much as to fly on playing the hero.
The awards ceremony was as usual, like always with a little too much emphasis on nations.
Now I’m on my way home, the last day at the pool was still quite comfortable. I had some discussions with Sepp and was grateful, how friendly all our German comrades had been with me, inviting me for training flights.
Thomas Fink even remarked, it would be a special honour for him, to train a Gordon Bennett winner.
Summarizing I must say, that I leave with very good feelings and somehow think about my future in gas ballooning. That’s almost a little worrying, for it means another activity more.
Now the plane speeds up, in a few seconds we will lift off from Albuquerque and that’s the end of the story.
Rainer RöhslerReturn to 37th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett