Balloon crew aiming to break records finally launches

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — After experiencing delays earlier this month, an international team aiming to break two major ballooning records finally launched a helium-filled balloon Sunday.

Pilots Troy Bradley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia set off from Saga, Japan, shortly before 6:30 a.m. local time.

“Everything went just like a textbook,” said Letitia Hill, social media director for the team’s mission control in Albuquerque.

Unfavorable weather changes scuttled two previous launch attempts more than a week ago.

The pilots are looking to reach North America, an attempt that will put them on course to break a distance record of 5,208 miles. They also want 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.

The team is expected to land in the next 5 ½ days, Hill said. But where they will land is anyone’s guess.

“That’s going to keep us on the edge of our seats for this mission,” Hill said after watching the launch at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.

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.

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