Rahul Sharma (Editor)

SkyQuest 5

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Record-setting balloon flight

On February 3, 1995, Dr. Bill Bussey launched an experimental "metal" balloon, and AX-6 hot air balloon, from Chanute, Kansas. By the time the balloon landed outside Savannah it had been piloted 892 miles (1,436 km), setting records for AX-6, AX-7, AX-8 and AX-9 class hot air balloons. Dr. Bussey still holds this record in two of the four classes.

Communication director for this record setting attempt, Glen Moyer first recorded the account of this historic journey in 1995 in Balloon Life magazine. Moyer recounts February 1995 flight of SkyQuest 5.

Bob Rice - known as the adventure meteorologist - had been meteorologist for the distance manned balloon flights attempted and completed by Steve Fossett including the first transatlantic, first solo transatlantic, first hot air transatlantic, and first hot air transpacific. It was a cold and windy morning in February 1995 when the call came, and Dr. Bussey's team was quick to get into action. Excited, the team had no idea that they were about to be a part of an historic event as they witnessed Dr. Bussey set and claim four world records and an additional 10 national records in his new balloon.

It was not long after the first call from Rice that the team of friends and volunteers gathered at Bill Bussey's headquarters, his balloonport in Longview, Texas. As final assembly of all necessary gear was underway, a second phone call from Rice, in the evening, brought confirmation of a good weather pattern. The decision was made to "go". The balloon and equipment was carefully loaded before a quick dinner break and trips home to pack for those in Chase One which included the launch crew. At midnight, Bussey and the Chase One crew left Longview for a drive to Chanute, Kansas which would take all night. Chanute, a small town due west of Wichita, was selected as the launch site by Bob Rice. Finally, the many months of waiting and preparation, Dr. Bussey was about to launch SkyQuest 5 and he was going to assault his own world record for distance in the AX-6 category.

Plans for SkyQuest 5 were born almost two years earlier, shortly after Bussey had successfully claimed seven world records in a flight from Amarillo, Texas, to near the Canada–US border. Flying a 105,000-cubic-foot (3,000 m3) balloon built by Thunder & Colt, the flight convinced Bussey of the validity of "metal" balloons, those built of mylar coated fabrics for the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean crossings. Almost upon landing Bussey says he began considering an attempt to break a world record he had set years earlier in 1987-the AX-6 distance record of 324 miles (521 km).

The balloon Dr. Bussey had ordered to be built was an AX-6, 56,000-cubic-foot (1,600 m3) envelope built of the same fabric used on the Virgin-Otsuka Pacific Flyer. To minimize any possibility competitors, hearing of his plans would attempt to beat him into the sky, construction of the balloon was wrapped in secrecy. It was sewn together behind closed doors at Thunder & Colt's facility in Longview, Texas. At the manufacturing facility, only a handful of the staff was aware of what the planned SkyQuest 5. Construction of the balloon began in early summer of 1993 by the time Dr. Bussey's first sanction window opened in November, the balloon was ready. Bussey and his crew, however, would sit and wait through two 90-day sanction windows, the second stretching into the spring of 1994 before it became obvious the attempt would have to wait for another winter. According to Bob Rice, winter was the only time of year that the appropriate weather patterns would be seen.

Bussey obtained his basket from Thunder and Colt in the UK. It was a basket that had been built for some of Dr. Coy Foster’s early record attempts. It was cut apart, redesigned and welded together again. Constructed of aluminum tubing and padded with pipe insulation from the local hardware store, the "basket" was then wrapped with shrink wrap to provide "solid" sides. A single stock C-3 model burner, on loan from Mark Bowie of Greenwood, Mississippi, would provide the necessary flame and heat.

Driving all night, Bussey and the crew of Chase One arrived in Chanute around 10 a.m. Sunday morning. After settling into a motel, Bussey and crew selected a city park for the actual launch site and visited the local police department to advise the authorities about the odd preparations set to begin the next morning about 3 a.m. and they were discovered by the local newspaper.

Chanute was chosen as the launch site by Bob Rice during his Saturday evening call, based on the weather system he saw developing. Ross identified a track directly between Little Rock, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, on to Tupelo, Mississippi, over Birmingham, Alabama, and virtually straight toward Jacksonville, Florida. Ross' forecast was almost perfect except for a slight turn north at the end of the flight. His accuracy two days before the flight launched amazed many on the crew.

At the home base in Longview, Glen Moyer had begun the task of sending out a release advising media, supporters and others that SkyQuest 5 was staging for launch. At 11 p.m. Moyer moved into Bussey's balloonport - communication center for the duration of the flight. Moyer set up the computer and set the alarm for 2:45 a.m.

The team in Kansas awoke at 2:30 a.m. and were making preparations for launch within 30 minutes. By 3:00 a.m. the teams in Chanute and Longview were ready. As the launch team of Bruce Bussey, Steve Jones, Edwin Bumpass and Mike Crawford prepared and inflated the balloon, complete with more than 170 gallons of propane, Bill Bussey set about checking the GPS and barograph - two instruments vital to verification of the records. In Longview, Glen McCoy was leaving town in Chase Two, heading east on I-20. In Shreveport he would pick up David Bellew and continue on toward Greenwood, Mississippi, where he hoped to intercept the balloon. Two chase teams had been planned with the expectation that Chase One might have trouble staying with the balloon. The primary concern was the lack of major roads for Chase One to follow - not a lot of consideration was given to the snowstorm or Bussey’s 100+ mph speeds that proved so fast, Chase One ended up six hours behind the balloon. A third team was aerial and would chase the balloon in the sky. Launched later in the morning, the plane, piloted by Jim Herschend with Mike Mills, was the only chase able to remain with the balloon throughout the flight.

The balloon designer and engineer, Mark Broome, had told Bussey that the balloon should fly 8 hours for certain, probably would go ten hours, and might stretch to 12 hours. This information, coupled with Bussey's desire to be on the ground an hour before sunset, set a launch time between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. SkyQuest lifted from the ground at precisely 4:24 a.m. without incident. A light snowfall marred the otherwise perfect beginning to the adventure. It was a snowfall that would play a major role in the chase as the launch team, now Chase One, packed up and went off in chase of the balloon. They found themselves driving through a blowing snowstorm for the next 8 hours. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, Chase One finally left the snowstorm behind them. Chase One would never catch up with Bussey as they had fallen behind by 90 miles (140 km) before two hours from launch had passed. They were now hopelessly behind after fighting the snow for 8 hours.

Above the clouds and the storm, Dr. Bussey had been facing his own challenges with the weather. "Immediately after a launch the most critical was to keep the balloon climbing, slowly climbing," Bussey explained later. "At that point the balloon is at maximum gross weight and any type of descent could possibly go into an uncontrolled descent. So I’m watching the flame, being certain I don’t have a flame-out. I want the balloon climbing at all times at a reasonable rate (200 fpm) not a fast rate, but a reasonable rate because with all that fuel on board I’m flying a bomb."

It wasn’t long before Bussey faced his first obstacle. While attempting to climb to altitude Bussey encountered a strong inversion layer at about 4,000 feet (1,200 m). The failure of one of Earthwinds' early attempts had been credited with an inversion layer. Failing to punch through the inversion, Earthwinds brushed a mountainside shortly after launch from Reno, Nevada.

"I had never dealt with an inversion layer that restricted my flight," says Bussey. "This was the first one that wouldn’t allow me to penetrate it. At first I thought I must have let off the burner. But as I made subsequent attempts each time I would be climbing at about 400 feet per minute, then I would see my variometer needle start to fall to where I was in level flight and then descending at 200 or 300 feet per minute and my burner had been on the entire time and the temperature would climb about 30 or 40 degrees. After doing this a few times I realized I was trying to punch through an inversion but the balloon just did not have enough lift."

Bussey decided to fly the balloon level until he burned off enough fuel to lighten the balloon and increase its lift. He was finally able to get through the inversion, and the balloon continued to climb at an easy rate. The decision to continue climbing was based on ground speed readouts from his GPS unit. In pre-flight planning, Bussey had set 50 mph as a minimum speed parameter he would accept for the flight. As he climbed to altitude the speed also increased from 40 to 50 then 60 mph and faster. At just over two hours into the flight Bussey had reached 15,400 feet (4,700 m) altitude and was cruising at 87 mph. Eventually his top speed would reach 108 mph, and the average speed for the entire flight would reach 80+ mph. At this rate Bussey knew he had beaten his old record after just six hours into the flight. From that point on the question was not if he would beat the record, but by how much?

While Bussey was above the snowstorm and enjoying his high ground speeds, the crews on the ground were wondering just where he was. The balloon was traveling so fast, he outran Chase One to the point that all radio contact with the balloon was lost. This happened about 7:30 a.m. It would be three long hours before communication with Bussey was restored. A serious complicating factor was that his aircraft radios were frozen, making it impossible for him to communicate with air traffic control at Memphis Center. The Longview communications center was discussing with Chase One whether the balloon might have been forced down by weather. At that exact moment Bussey was flying between Little Rock and Memphis, and all that could be seen on the weather radar was a huge snowstorm. Fortunately Bussey was well above this weather and outrunning it.

Chase Two with Glen McCoy and David Bellew was in Greenwood, Mississippi, by mid-morning. With assistance from Mark Bowie, they were able to maintain contact with Bussey for about an hour. After that they found themselves in the same situation as Chase One - left behind by the speeding SkyQuest 5. As Bussey flew over Birmingham, Alabama, he had no radio contact with his crews. At approximately 1:30 a.m. radio contact was briefly re-established as the balloon and Bussey were nearing Columbus, Georgia. This time it was a wrecker driver in Macon that Bussey was able to contact on the radio who relayed communications to Longview by telephone. Longview center would not hear from Bussey again until he was on the ground.

Bussey, meanwhile, was enjoying a rare view from a balloon. He could see both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time. In Longview, things were not so "pretty". Concerned that neither chase team would be able to make up the hours and catch the balloon (and not aware the chase plane was with the balloon) it was decided to roll a third ground chase team. Duane Clark of Taylors, South Carolina, had agreed to assist. About noon Clark set off south into Georgia.

The track forecast by Bob Rice for the flight remained consistent, and the Longview center and Chase One, Two and now Three anticipated a landing in a little triangle of southeast Georgia/northeast Florida bounded by Valdosta, Waycross and Jacksonville. Duane Clark, however, had collected weather reports from the area, and based on low-level and surface winds, Clark was certain Bussey would turn north once he descended to land and would be landing near Savannah. As communication director for the flight, Glen Moyer's job was to coordinate the chase crews, and after such a long flight, Moyer wanted someone there with him as soon as he touched down. Hindsight being 20/20, Moyer should have listened to Clark because he called the landing site almost exactly.

With Clark driving south out of South Carolina and Chase One and Two still hours behind, Bussey suffered the only real scare of the flight. "I could see Jacksonville and knew it was getting close to time to begin my descent. I could also see a cloud line running off to the northeast and my mind told me this was the shoreline," Bussey said later. "Upon a second look I realized that cloudline was about 100 miles offshore and the actual shoreline looked as if it was directly below me!"

Bussey immediately put the balloon into a terminal descent but the balloon would only fall at about 700 feet per minute. Concerned this would not get him down in time, he opened the valve again and finally achieved a descent rate of near 1,000 fpm.

"I took it right down to the trees," says Bussey, "and these were probably 50 foot tall pine trees, and the wind was blowing about 10-12 and gusting. The balloon was very light and had no internal pressure so it was hard getting the balloon to settle down. I flew probably five miles over nothing but solid woods. I wasn’t worried about getting the balloon down, but I was worried that I might damage the balloon. So I said to myself I should take it all the way to the shoreline, then I thought better of it and decided I had the record, the thing to do was get down, be safe and get it over with."

It was 3:43 p.m. when the phone rang at Longview center, "Glen, this is Bussey. I’m down and safe. Let me tell you where I am." Bussey had landed about 15 miles (24 km) south of Savannah just across Highway 17, the old coast highway. Jim Herschend and Mike Mills in the chase plane watched and photographed the near stand-up landing, then landed their plane and were with Bussey about 30 minutes later. Duane Clark arrived less than an hour after touchdown. Chase Two was about four hours away and Chase One was still six hours behind. The flight had lasted eleven hours and nineteen minutes, covering 892 miles (1,436 km), setting four world records for distance in AX-6, 7, 8 & 9 balloons and setting 10 US national records for distance in AX-6-15 balloons. Bussey still holds the world record for distance in AX-6 and AX-7 class balloons.

The unfortunate news came when we realized the world record for AX-10-14 balloons was only 913.8 miles (1,470.6 km). Bussey landed with more than 30 gallons of fuel left, enough for another 4–5 hours estimated flying time. Had he not run out of land, and an hour later out of daylight, there is little doubt he could have flown on to claim an additional 5 world records. A few more miles and this flight in a small 56,000-cubic-foot (1,600 m3) balloon would have been longer than any other hot air balloon flight in the world, except for Lindstrand and Branson’s oceanic crossings. But the goal had been to beat one, his own AX-6 record set 8 years earlier; this he had clearly done.

In the aftermath of the flight, congratulations poured in from all around the world. However, none more impressive than a fax from Bob Rice, who called the flight one of the most impressive in modern history, quite a compliment from the man so closely associated with historic balloon flights such as the first Atlantic crossing by Double Eagle II and the first hot air balloon crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific. "What impressed me about the flight is that Bussey got so much out of so little. When you take a tiny balloon like this one and fly it for such a long distance, that’s phenomenal."

Rice also credited Bussey’s patience for waiting more than a year for the right weather system. Rice says patience is absolutely necessary for such record flights. "It’s fundamental," says Rice. "When you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before-which by definition is what a record flight is-you have to wait for the right weather. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who understand that."

So who deserves the credit, the weather man or the pilot? "Well," continued Rice, "it’s my choice of a weather pattern and the pilot’s decision to fly it!"

For Bussey the flight had two memorable moments. "The first was sunrise. It was dark and I was on top of the clouds and when that sun comes up it’s white and pretty and it starts warming up and is just beautiful. That, and when my GPS read 100 mph ground speed I was really excited, I knew then we had the record."


SkyQuest 5 Wikipedia