ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Only a few hundred miles and less than two days stand in the way of the international team piloting the helium-filled Two Eagles balloon in a bid to break a pair of major records.
Accomplished balloon pilots Troy Bradley of Albuquerque and Leonid Tiukhtyaev (too-kh-TY'-yev) of Russia are aiming for the shores of North America after launching last weekend from Saga, Japan. They're 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.
Things to know about the challenge:
The exact destination in North America where the balloon will land is anyone's guess. It depends on the winds encountered along the way. Forecasters at mission control say Bradley and Tiukhtyaev are on track to cross over Vancouver Island and the Canadian Rockies. From there, it's possible the team can swing back into the United States. The tracking monitors at mission control switched to showing U.S. cities as the closest landmarks Wednesday morning. "That just made it very real that we're getting close," team member Kim Vesely said. It would mark the first successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean in a gas balloon since 1981.
Landfall is expected Thursday or Friday given that the balloon's speed has slowed down significantly, which is something forecasters had expected. The balloon, made up of a massive envelope and a specially-designed carbon fiber-composite capsule, is capable of staying aloft for as many as 10 days.
The team says the very last task will be a safe landing. Since there's no certainty about where the balloon will touch down, the head of the recovery effort has established a network of balloonists across the U.S. and in southern Canada who can serve as chase crews, those who are on the ground to help with tethering the capsule and rounding up the balloon's envelope as it deflates. The volunteers are ready to travel within a 200-mile radius once the landing spot becomes clear.
The Federation Aeronautique Internationale is the organization that ratifies all world aviation records. Bradley and Tiukhtyaev must exceed the current records by 1 percent to claim a new world record. If they get that far, the team will notify the National Aeronautics Association of its claim within seven days of landing and all the documentation will be forwarded to the FAI for consideration. The process can take weeks, but the team will have plenty of data to present since the balloon is outfitted with an array of monitors and other instruments.
The team has been in constant communication with mission control, and updates on the balloon's location are being posted to social media sites. As of Wednesday afternoon, the balloon was about 1,000 miles off the coast of California — traveling about 30 mph at an altitude of more than 16,000 feet.