Search continues for American pilots missing in balloon race

September 30, 2010

The search intensified Sept. 30 for a gas balloon missing in the Gordon Bennett 2010 International Gas Balloon Race and its American pilots, Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis.

Twenty teams representing 11 countries launched Sept. 25 from Bristol, England, west of London, and 19 balloons have landed safely. The Swiss team of Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witpraechtiger covered the greatest distance—1,314 nautical miles—landing in eastern Romania on Sept. 28.

The Gordon Bennett Control Center received its last signal from the USA2 team, flying a gas balloon registered as N801NM, at 0558Z on Sept. 29. (Tracking devices normally provide a balloon’s position every 15 minutes.) At that time the balloon was flying at 9,000 feet above the Adriatic Sea, off the Italian coast, traveling south at 7 knots. U.S. and Croatian search and rescue teams joined Italian authorities in the search Sept. 30, according to the Associated Press.

“We were contacted around that time also by Brindisi Air Traffic Control, who had lost contact with the balloon,” said Don Cameron, flight director for the event, in a statement to media Sept. 29. “Mr. Luc Trullemans, meteorologist, has had a conversation with one of the pilots at 0605Z. No contact has been established since. The balloon is equipped with satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder, and two mobile telephones. It has not been possible to make contact on any of these. Thunderstorms were present in the area.”

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center launched a search and rescue operation, involving several aircraft and a fast patrol boat. Croatian authorities and all shipping in the area also were notified. Nothing has been found and no signal has been detected from the balloon’s ELT, which should activate on contact with water, Cameron said. “The balloon is equipped with survival suits, life jackets, and two single-person life rafts.”

The search was scaled back at nightfall.

Participants in America's Challenge—the annual gas balloon race scheduled to launch from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta on Tuesday evening, Oct. 5—are closely following developments in the Adriatic. Of the eight balloons scheduled to participate in the race, three were to be shipped to the United States following the Gordon Bennett race—including Abruzzo’s.

Abruzzo is registered to fly in the America’s Challenge with co-pilot Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico. Abruzzo has won the America’s Challenge five times, twice with Johnson as his co-pilot and, in 2003, flying with Rymer-Davis. Both Abruzzo and Rymer-Davis also are longtime participants in the Balloon Fiesta’s hot air events.

Unlike hot air balloons, gas balloons get their initial lift from helium or hydrogen that is pumped into their envelopes. To descend, pilots can either vent the gas through the top of their envelope or wait for the cooler evening temperatures to contract the gas in the envelope. To ascend, pilots can either drop ballast (typically sand or water) or wait for warmer daytime temperatures to heat the gas and cause it to expand. While both lighter-than-air gases provide lift, helium costs significantly more.