Balloon pilots wait out weather for record attempt

AP News
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Posted: Jan 08, 2015 7:50 PM
Balloon pilots wait out weather for record attempt

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Unfavorable winds over the Pacific Ocean have forced two veteran pilots trying to break a pair of records to delay the launch of their helium-filled balloon.

Albuquerque pilot Troy Bradley and colleague Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia had planned to lift off from Saga, Japan. While flying conditions were just about perfect between Japan and Hawaii, forecasts called for deteriorating weather after that, which could hamper the record attempt and put the pilots in danger.

"There's a lot of pressure sometimes, but we can't let pressure compromise safety," said Steven Stope, director of the team's mission control center based at the international balloon museum in Albuquerque.

Part of the problem is the forecast winds are too slow and threaten to push the balloon too far north, which would mean the pilots would be in the capsule longer than expected.

The team planned to reassess the conditions when it gets another weather update in eight hours.

Stope said Bradley and Tiukhtyaev were tired after having worked nonstop the last couple of days to get everything ready for the flight.

"In a way, I think this is a blessing in disguise that they're able to get some sleep tonight and make some fresh decisions in the morning," Stope said.

The pilots are aiming for the shores of North America, an attempt that will put them on course to break a distance record of 5,208 miles that has stood for more than three decades.

They're also looking to break the flight-duration record set in 1978 when Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman made the first trans-Atlantic balloon flight. That record of 137 hours in the air in a traditional gas balloon is considered the "holy grail" of ballooning achievements.

Bradley and Tiukhtyaev's balloon — dubbed Two Eagles — is outfitted with a high-tech navigation system, basic necessities such as a first-aid kit, and equipment to communicate with the command center.

It will fly at an altitude of at least 15,000 feet. The pilots will have oxygen masks and will be bundled up. The temperature inside their capsule will be about 50 degrees.

The pilots have to be physically fit to endure several days inside the capsule, with little sleep and limited oxygen. In addition to the record attempts, the flight is being monitored by researchers at Arizona State University who are studying the effects of fatigue on cognitive ability.

It's possible the pilots could be aloft for 10 days, which is the outer limit of the balloon's capabilities, the team said.

Once the hatch is closed and the pilots are inside, it's much like a video game, monitoring the GPS and other systems for updates on weather conditions, speed and altitude, Bradley told The Associated Press in October.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry urged residents to pray for the team and cheer them on.

"Let's never forget, this is an adventure for a reason. This could be dangerous," the mayor said, mentioning balloonists Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis, who died in 2010 while competing in a gas balloon competition.

Despite the dangers, Stope said the entire Two Eagles team is excited about the prospect of lifting off. The flight window stretches through the end of February, and if the weather doesn't cooperate, he said the team will try again next year.

"It's human nature to explore, it's human nature to push the limits, and that's exactly what they're doing," Stope said. "That's the exciting part about it. That's the real spirit of mankind."

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