After days of blustery, raining conditions, on a gorgeous clear night in Albuquerque, the America’s Challenge distance race for gas balloons is finally off and flying. At this writing, the competitors have already cleared the Sandia Mountains east of the city and are headed eastward across New Mexico.
The launch was delayed three days because of a stubborn weather system, and this evening was delayed yet again -- by two hours -- because of strong winds on the launch site that persisted later than expected. But at sunset the winds quit and spectators were treated to a beautiful southwestern sunset as the balloons completed launch preparations. At 8:30 PM MDT (0230Z), the first competing balloon soared skywards, piloted by David Levin and Ron Martin. The 13 balloons were launched without incident in about 40 minutes, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd.
Last year’s champions Janet Folkes of the UK and Bill Arras of the USA have some stiff competition as they try to defend their title. Five-time winner Richard Abruzzo is back in the America’s Challenge this year after a disastrous flight in the 2005 Gordon Bennett (held simultaneously with the 2005 America’s Challenge). He is flying with Carol Rymer Davis, the co-pilot in his 2004 Gordon Bennett win. Other former winners in the field include Levin, Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke. The rest of the field is loaded with talent, and it’s truly anybody’s race.
The balloons are expected to head east across the southern United States. It will most probably be a fast trip. Weather data presented to the pilots at today’s preflight briefing suggests competitors could reach the coast in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Florida in about 48 hours.
We’ll provide regular updates as the race progresses and, of course, you can follow the competitors’ progress across the country live on our tracking page, http://www.balloonfiesta.com/Gas/tracking/index.php.