What a flight...If we would have had just a bit more energy, we could have flown ahead and won.
The flight started out trying to just eek enough altitude to cross the northern edge of the Sandia Crest to get our easterly flow and push us into the low jet that was to form over Kansas. That was successfully accomplished and we settled into a nice 25 kt north-easterly direction.
Shortly after sun up near Dalhart, TX we decreased altitude and never really solared due to high overhead clouds and skimmed along at about 40 mph flying across the wind farm at Montezuma near the Colorado / Kansas border, we crossed it about 400 ft agl, got a bit of turbulence over it- - - very awesome sight! Made a terrible noise too! As we trimmed out of that and rode the top of the inversion our speeds increased to 50 mph and eventually to 65 mph as we screamed across Kansas. The ride was rough and required quite a bit of minor ballasting as the inversion would start to break up and some thermal activity would bump us and try to suck us down. At Hays, Kansas we had had enough and decided to let the balloon solar up a bit as the sun was starting to break through...it was late afternoon. This took us quickly up to Lincoln and then passing directly through Omaha and Epply's evening airline traffic. The controller's were quite confused that we were balloons and travelling in a cluster at 60 mph!! Was humorous to say the least....but the bad news was that we were racing into a cold front in Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan. The forecast was for mist/cloudy conditions. We were flying with a Pocket PC and an XM NEXRAD weather receiver - - wonderful equipment, could see the radar on the Great Lakes and it was indicating thunderstorms.
We were racing along leading the pack and our weather man indicated that we should quickly ascend to 12,000 MSL to slow our speeds and avoid the possibility of flying into storms. We had witnessed another balloon do a rapid ascent and were wondering what the heck he was doing...this was our mistake...we discussed and managed the ballast, ascended to 10,000 msl and got no change of direction or speed...the other balloon was descending back down, as we did when we realized that this manoeuvre was nothing more than a fools errand and we let the balloon descend and fly at an altitude that it wanted to conserve ballast. This manoeuvre cost about 5 bags total...We had adequate ballast for two more nights, but this move cost us a night...and put the risk of flying the lakes out of the question. We started to trim off all the excess equipment and basket components...foam, bench, gear bags...everything for ballast. Which was good, then we flew into the clouds, condensation and moisture.
We avoided Minneapolis airspace by descending to several thousand feet AGL, essentially flying off the Pocket PC...IFR. Dennis working on ballast piles and cutting excess off the basket, me working the navigation to the lakes, tower and obstacles and radio work, at one point in time, the trajectory took us to Green Bay an hour before daylight....yikes. By now we are soaked, cold and still have four long hours to day light. A mental work out, nothing like yours, but more than I was anticipating.
It was surreal, we passed through the cold front somewhere near Eau Claire and it was a first for Dennis, I sorta laughed about it and he didn't see all the humour in it...but it was a good experience. We were able to work our east west a bit here and then go back up to catch our northerly winds to push us up the peninsula. We had realized that we should have stayed low past Omaha...powered our way up and through the weather and the lakes...we could have been past them all by morning with ballast to spare...but that was not the case. Dealing with the weather and clouds was one thing...just prior to day break we descended through about 3000 ft of clouds and popped out about 800 agl over a ridge and some huge power lines in northern Wisconcin. The valleys were fogging in and out....no chance of solar and we flew for another couple of hours on the deck....finally taking a landing spot in a large field near the International Paper Mill.....we landed with about a half bag of ballast and a few radios...probably could have gone another hour, but at that point we had no power left for the Pocket PC and radar...had no idea what we were flying into.
After 34h52' in the air the team landed near Norway, Michigan. With their 1959 km they obtained the 5th place in the America's Challenge.
More pictures and stories of this flight: www.flynh3.com
... with thanks to John Kugler!