The year 2006 brought many highs and lows, no pun intended. Once again Danni and I were part of the US Team completing in the Gordon Bennett. The race marked the 100-year anniversary of the event. The event is typically hosted by the winning country of the previous year, in this case, Belgium. The host has the their choice of lifting gas. While in the US we offer both helium and hydrogen, in Europe, it is just one or the other. In this event hydrogen was the only gas offered. My balloon is not rated for hydrogen and meant we could not fly our equipment. In Germany we found a hydrogen style netted balloon system. I traveled to Germany and trained with the Augsburg Balloon Club flying this older netted version. The balloon was sound but not a very competitive system for a Gordon Bennett race of today's technology. In the end it made no matter. Due to a malfunction, the valve of the balloon was leaking just after the inflation to the point that we were never able to launch. Having to sit and watch the entire field of balloons empty was much more than heartbreaking.
Fortunately, three weeks later the American's Challenge gas race started in Albuquerque. As in every year, the three pilots posting the best distance go on to represent the US in the next Gordon Bennett. In October 2006 I flew with Kevin Knapp and together we won the race by flying 1,478 miles (2,379 km) and landed near Gainesville, FL. Lets hope that the third time will be the charm for me in the 2007 Gordon Bennett in Belgium. Yes, the Belgians won again. The team of Philippe De Cock and Ronny Van Havere making a flight of 2,450 km (1,522 miles) for the longest distance of any Gordon Bennett race ever flown in Europe to date.
Now to January 2007. Shortly after returning back home after the America's Challenge race I was contacted by Samuel Canders. Sam is a fixed and rotor wing pilot who has had an interest in ballooning for some time. He has had a desire to fly across the US from coast to coast by balloon for almost 10 years. He asked me if he sponsored a flight would I take him on a trans-continental adventure. It took a whole two seconds to think it over and say yes. My only stipulation was that we make a serious attempt to break the AA-6 distance record as well.
The first problem is the time restraint to complete the flight by March 2007. This due to Sam's work schedule and that the NAA sanction time frame for any record attempt is only a 90-day period. Secondly, we need a flight minimum of 2,134 miles or 3,435 km to break the standing record. I decided to start in Southern California to have enough land mass. This requires a landing on the East Coast either north of Charleston, SC or south of Daytona Beach, Florida. I think the biggest problem of this flight will be icing. Flight altitudes will between 10,000 and 18,000 feet. During the entire flight the balloon (and us) will be in temperatures below freezing. While uncomfortable for Sam and I, if we encounter any kind of moisture the added weight of ice on the balloon could mean an early landing.
As in the past, the flight can be tracked real-time on this web site. Wish us luck and look for more up-dates. We hope to be at Lake Elsinore, CA on 28 January to stage the equipment. My old friend and instructor who transitioned me to flying balloons, Jim Bilbrey of Adventure Flights Inc., will be hosting us at his FAA part 141 Balloon school (www.advflights.com). Weather permitting we will fly within the following week.