Bangor In Focus

The Transatlantic Challenge

Balloons for teams from Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and United States stand tall at Bass Park, awaiting the 3 a.m. launch of the first trans-Atlantic balloon race, on Sept. 16, 1992.

"It's ballooning's greatest race ever." -- Don Cameron

The scene at Bass Park the night of Sept. 15, 1992, was, in a word, awe-inspiring. Five teams of balloonists from five countries set out that clear and cool late-summer night to embark on a trip few had taken before or have taken since.

Conceived in 1982 by world-renowned balloonists and balloon manufacturers Don Cameron and Alan Noble of the United Kingdom, the Chrysler Transatlantic Challenge pitted the world's best balloonists against each other in a race across the Atlantic Ocean to the first paved road in Europe, excluding Ireland, almost 3,000 miles away in the shortest elapsed time. The second goal of the race was to see which team could stay aloft the longest.

The flight over the Atlantic was so dangerous that only five previous balloons had crossed the ocean successfully in 16 previous attempts, with three attempts ending in death.

Cameron had failed in his 1978 attempt, landing in the ocean within sight of France. Ben Abruzzo, American co-pilot Richard Abruzzo's father, was the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon when he took off from Presque Isle, Maine, in 1978 and flew to Normandy, France, setting the world endurance record at 137 hours aloft. In 1984, Joe Kittinger became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic when he took off from Caribou, Maine. He landed 86 hours later in Italy. In 1987, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand became the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon when they took off from Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield, Maine. They landed in the United Kingdom less than 32 hours later.

In mid-August, the two-pilot teams from the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany arrived in Bangor to wait for the favorable late-summer winds that would give them their best chance of making it to Europe. While waiting for the right weather for launch, the pilots bid their time attending news conferences, inspecting their equipment, playing softball against the Husson College baseball team and even buying big-ticket item goods such as a riding lawn mower, a speed boat and a Harley Davidson motorcycle at prices far below those in Europe.

Except for the American pilots, of course, the European pilots struggled in the softball game against Husson's baseball team even though the baseball players batted with the opposite hand.

For Bangor, the event was a chance to extend a welcoming hand to the teams and foreign journalists.

With no set time for a launch because of the unpredictable weather patterns over the Atlantic, the pilots and race organizers had to be ready to launch within hours of getting the green light. On Aug. 31, favorable weather over the Atlantic prompted organizers of the race to announce there was a 60 percent chance the launch would be at dawn on Sept. 2. But when the weather over the Atlantic deteriorated the next day, organizers called the launch off.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 13, organizers reported happily that a favorable weather pattern was forming to the west of Bangor that would, if conditions held, take the balloons over the Atlantic safely.

The weather held and organizers announced two days later that the launch would be at about 3 a.m. that night, about three hours earlier than organizers had envisioned. The five teams retrieved their equipment from a hangar at Bangor International Airport and began preparing to fill the balloons with helium.

After another weather briefing for the teams ended at 10:45 p.m., race director Noble announced: "We've just had a weather update. We're going to fly."

At 11:30 p.m., the pilots and their support crews lay their 90-foot nylon balloons on the infield at Bangor Raceway and began pumping helium into them, a process that would take about three hours. When word of the impending launch spread, curiosity seekers from around the state traveled to Bangor to watch the start of the race. Despite its being a school night, parents brought their children to marvel at the balloons as the balloons inflated slowly before towering almost nine stories over the Bass Park neighborhood.

The American team's balloon fills with helium shortly after 11 p.m. on Sept. 15.

To make the race truly a competition of skill among the pilots, the teams had an identical budget of $300,000, identical equipment and identical weather reports at their disposal. However, although the teams would share their position to each other, they would not share information on their altitude because the successful team would be the one that found the right altitude to pick up the jet stream's powerful winds.

The 5-foot-by-5-foot-by-7-foot Kevlar and carbon fiber gondolas weighed only a little more than 100 pounds. They contained a global positioning satellite receiver, a fax machine so the pilots could receive weather reports, two-way radios, food, a portable toilet, oxygen and helium tanks, a parachute for each pilot, a life raft and an emergency beacon. The gondolas themselves were seaworthy.

A crowd of more than 2,000 onlookers surrounded the racetrack or watched from the grandstand as the 3 a.m. launch time approached. The crowd was nowhere the size one local race organizer had predicted. Weeks earlier, John McCatherin told reporters that he expected anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 people to flock to Bass Park for the launch.

Still, for an area that goes to bed early and rises early, the 2,000 to 3,000 who did show up was quite a number for 3 a.m. Some onlookers took the opportunity to get within a hundred feet or so of the balloons as crews rushed to make last-minute adjustments and load equipment such as oxygen tanks and food.

Chrysler 1, piloted by the Belgian team, floats overhead. The balloon would be the first to reach Europe.

Finally, at about 3 a.m. Sept. 16, the Belgian team launched first. With a little more than a few blasts from their burner, the Belgians and their balloon rose from Bangor Raceway slowly amid waves and cheers from the crew and onlookers before drifting to the east over Buck and Lincoln streets and then floating away into the night sky. The team's national anthem played as the balloon lifted off.

The other balloons followed in five-minute intervals, each with their own national anthem to send them off.

In the first day aloft, the teams traveled only about 10-15 mph at an altitude that varied from 500 feet to 1,000 feet as they left the coast of Maine and headed over Newfoundland. Thirty-six hours after the launch, the United States led about 460 miles from Bangor and 160 miles south of Nova Scotia. The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany followed the Americans in order. Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo, the Americans, told race officials -- who had since moved to Rotterdam -- that the weather was so good they were sunbathing atop their gondola. Meanwhile, the German team of Erich Krafft and Jochen Maas complained that it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit in their gondola; the teams had prepared for cold weather.

About 60 hours into the race the Belgians had moved from fourth place to first, dropping everybody else a spot. Although the weather over the Atlantic was favorable, the five balloons continued moving slowly along the jet stream. At 3 p.m., Sept. 18, the Dutch and British were within 75 miles of each other. The Belgians continued to lead, about 1,100 miles from Bangor and 250 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The average speed of the balloons had increased from 15-20 mph at the start of the race to about 30 knots.

The Germans became the first team to drop out of the race when they ran into a storm on Sept. 19 and had to ditch their balloon 550 miles off the coast of Canada. An oil tanker on its way to Corpus Christi, Texas, picked up the two men. The weather radar had not detected the storm, so the two men lost most of their fuel trying to stay aloft through the storm.

The German team, Erich Krafft and Jochen Maas, lifts off from Bass Park shortly after 3 a.m., Sept. 16. Unfortunately, a squall off the coast of Canada forced the team to land in the ocean on Sept. 19.

At about that time, the Belgians had thoughts of trying to break the endurance record in addition to winning the race. Two days later, they won when they reached Portugal at 3:48 a.m. -- 2,580 miles from Bangor and 114 hours, 27 minutes after launching. They landed at Peque, Spain.

The second-place Dutch almost made it to land, but they had to ditch their balloon in the English Channel, 65 miles southwest of the United Kingdom, after running into foul weather.

"It's pouring out here like nothing you've ever seen before," one of the pilots told race officials on the radio. "The balloon is as heavy as lead."

A helicopter picked the pilots up from the water and the pilots got a routine checkup at a local hospital before taking a plane to Rotterdam to race headquarters.

The British team of Cameron and Rob Bayly overtook the Dutch and finished second when they landed in Figueira da foz, Portugal, after 128 hours aloft.

The Americans, meanwhile, found themselves too far to the south after maneuvering their balloon away from the bad weather off the coast of Europe. They soon turned their apparent misfortune into opportunity by deciding to forge ahead to Africa to set new endurance and distance records and become the first to pilot a balloon from North America to Africa.

The Americans' balloon launches.

Crowds turned out in droves 35 miles east of Casablanca in Morocco when word spread of the Americans' impending arrival. The Moroccans treated the Americans like royalty when the Americans' balloon landed. For Abruzzo, setting the endurance record -- at 145 hours -- held special meaning because his father had held the previous record of 137 hours, 5 minutes and 50 seconds.

Pleased with the race's success and worldwide popularity, Noble said he hoped to return to Bangor the following year for a second trans-Atlantic race. Unfortunately, the expensive nature of the race has kept the balloons grounded even though interest from balloonists is high. Chrysler underwrote the entire $2 million cost of the 1992 race. Cameron sought to hold another race that would have started in Bangor in July or August 2001. The race would have comprised 10 teams instead of five. Unfortunately, no major sponsor came forward and there will be no race.