Balloon pilots celebrate wins, mourn loss

October 14, 2010

The 2010 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta concluded Oct. 10 after a week of exceptionally good weather. Pilots in the thirty-ninth annual event were honored at a weekend awards banquet. 

Bryan Hill of Arizona, flying BasketCase, earned the highest score—3,895 points—and took home the first-place prize, a one-person Cloudhopper hot air balloon. Thomas Forenz of Colorado, pilot of She’s A Lady, placed a close second with 3,894 points and captured a $7,000 award. Robert Duff of New Mexico, flying Sincerely, accrued 3,805 points and won the third-place award, $4,000, while Gary Bennett of New Mexico—flying HighXpectations—earned 3,780 points and fourth place’s $3,000 prize. A complete listing of winners is available on the Balloon Fiesta’s website.

In the fifteenth annual America’s Challenge gas balloon race, Albuquerque’s Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo took first place with their 1,350-mile flight, which lasted about 57 hours and 30 minutes. They landed on the east shore of the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Gas balloon landings in an urban environment are very unusual, as the balloons usually land in rural and even remote areas. The team won the America’s Challenge in 2001, and finished second in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

Danielle Francoeur and American Linda Ellis won second place, landing southwest of Holland, Mich., after a 1,223-mile flight. Cheryl White and Mark Sullivan of the United States, who landed near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, placed third. Launch of the America’s Challenge was delayed because of weather; the gas balloons began to take flight around midnight on Oct. 8.

Balloon Fiesta—and especially the America’s Challenge event—was dampened by the presumed loss of American pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis, whose gas balloon disappeared over the Adriatic Sea, off the Italian coast, Sept. 29.

They were participating in the Gordon Bennett 2010 International Gas Balloon Race. Twenty teams representing 11 countries launched Sept. 25 from Bristol, England, west of London. The Swiss team of Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witpraechtiger covered the greatest distance, 1,314 nm, and landed in eastern Romania on Sept. 28. Abruzzo, who was scheduled to fly in the America’s Challenge with co-pilot Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, won the America’s Challenge five times—twice with Johnson as his co-pilot and, in 2003, flying with Rymer-Davis.

The Gordon Bennett Control Center received its last tracking signal from Abruzzo and Rymer-Davis’s balloon at 0558Z on Sept. 29. At that time the balloon was flying at 9,000 feet above the Adriatic Sea, traveling south at 7 knots. Analysis of transponder data indicated that the balloon was descending at a moderate rate, which increased to a rapid descent rate of about 50 mph. Thunderstorms were present in the area at the time.

After six days of extensive searching, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center suspended its search for the balloon on Oct. 4. Italian and U.S. military assets participated in the search.

“At this point we have not found any physical evidence from the balloon, the gondola, equipment, or personal effects,” Nancy Abruzzo said in a statement. “While the search for my husband, Richard Abruzzo—and his co-pilot, Dr. Carol Rymer-Davis—is officially over, the search is continuing in an unofficial capacity.” She said the search was like “looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta drew an estimated 761,864 visitors, as well as 550 registered balloons that came from 38 U.S. states and 16 other countries. Average attendance is typically 850,000 over nine days. For more information on the event, or to experience a flight in a hot air balloon, see “ The air up there” in the October 2010 edition of AOPA Pilot.