ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – An international team is piloting a helium-filled balloon across the Pacific Ocean in an effort to break two major ballooning records. Here are five things to know about the challenge.
THE PILOTS. Accomplished balloon pilots Troy Bradley of Albuquerque and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia launched their balloon from Saga, Japan, shortly before 6:30 a.m. Sunday in Japan. Bradley, 50, has been flying balloons since the age of 14. He has set nearly 60 world records flying various types of balloons. He was part of a team that made the first North America-to-Africa balloon flight and set the absolute duration record of six days. Tiukhtyaev, 58, has participated in many long distance gas balloon races and established eight world records. He is also the president of the Balloon Federation of Russia.
THE RECORDS. The team is aiming for the shores of North America, an attempt that will put them 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.
THE EQUIPMENT. The balloon’s envelope is more than 141 feet long, more than 91 feet across and has volume of 350,000 cubic feet. It’s capable of lifting 14,500 pounds. The carbon-composite capsule is light but strong. It is 5 feet high, 5 feet wide and 7 feet long. The capsule is non-pressurized so the pilots have to wear oxygen masks whenever they’re flying above 12,000 feet.
WEATHER CONDITIONS. Unfavorable weather changes scuttled two previous launch attempts more than a week ago. The team had to wait for the right combination of wind – calm at the launch site but fast enough to get them over the Pacific Ocean in less than 10 days, which would mark the outer limits of the balloon’s capabilities. The team’s exact destination in North America is not known because the location will depend on the winds the balloon encounters along the way. The conditions are constantly monitored by Bradley and Tiukhtyaev’s team at the mission control center at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
LIVE TRACKING. The balloon is outfitted with GPS and a slew of other monitoring equipment. The team is in constant communication with mission control and updates are being posted to social media sites. As of Tuesday in New Mexico, the balloon was more than 600 miles northeast of Midway Island – more than halfway across the ocean – traveling nearly 60 mph at an altitude of more than 16,000 feet.