Rain deflates hopes for elite gas balloon race in New Mexico
Oct. 08, 2015
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A spotty forecast deflated all hope Wednesday that a long-distance competition among some of gas ballooning's most elite pilots would get off the ground, marking only the second time in 20 years that weather has canceled the race.
Seven teams from around the world planned to compete in the annual America's Challenge gas balloon race. They were set to launch Saturday, the first day of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
But organizers kept the balloons from inflating due to weather at the launch site and along the trajectories the balloons were expected to follow while aloft for two to three days.
Organizers had until just before midnight Wednesday to launch the competition and stay in compliance with race rules. They decided at an afternoon briefing that it would be a no-go this year.
The decision was made in the interest of safety because wet and unstable weather continued to hang over parts of New Mexico.
"It wasn't a difficult decision, but it was a sad decision," event Director Johnny Petrehn said. "Nobody wants to fly in thunderstorms."
He hopes the teams from the U.S., Germany, Poland and Spain that planned to compete will return for the next challenge in 2016.
The America's Challenge is one of only two distance races for gas balloons in the world. The other is the granddaddy of gas balloon distance challenges, the Coupe Aéronatique Gordon Bennett. That is the world's oldest air race, founded in 1906.
The America's Challenge has been held during balloon fiesta nearly every year since it began in 1995 — with two exceptions. In 1999, the fiesta hosted the Gordon Bennett. In 2009, the challenge was canceled because of high winds.
Winds below 12 mph are ideal for launching and landing, according to race organizers.
The distance record for the race was set in 2000, when the winning team covered 1,998.1 miles. That year, competitors had to wait out three days of rain before launching. The duration record of nearly 71 hours in flight was set in 2011.
Last year, the farthest travelling balloon made it to Kentucky.
The seven teams set to participate this year all agreed with organizers that it was best to call off the race, Petrehn said.
"They're going to go home all in one piece safe and sound, and that's what's important," he said.
Most of the pilots also are participating in the balloon fiesta. The nine-day event draws hundreds of balloonists from around the world, along with tens of thousands of spectators.
Weather has not interfered this year with any of the fiesta's mass ascensions. Mostly sunny weather is expected through Sunday, when the fiesta ends.