Balloon Group

Rob Mullis, Charlotte, N.C., Cheri White, Austin, Texas, and Mark Sullivan, Albuquerque, N.M.

Gas ballooners from New Mexico interrupt Sally Bowser’s morning coffee

On Wednesday, Oct. 9, Frank and Sally Bowser received unexpected visitors, via airdrop.

A gas balloon, flown by Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, made a landing in Wayne and Gabrea Anderson’s field north east of Aitkin, stopping just short of the Mississippi River after being caught by a fence.

Sally Bowser, who first noticed the balloon coming in for the landing around 8 a.m. while she was drinking her coffee, pursued it, followed by Frank in his Gator. The couple was the first to arrive at the landing site (excepting Sullivan and White), and were soon accompanied by Rob Mullis and Chris Shelton, who had been following the balloon since it left Albuquerque, N.M. on Oct. 7.

The balloon pilots, Sullivan (age 70) and White (age 59), were participating in the America’s Challenge Balloon Race, part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, a nine-day event which takes place every October. The fiesta hosts 550 hot air balloons, 650 pilots and over 880,000 guests, and is among the largest balloon events in the world.

Sullivan and White had traveled over 1,000 miles in 44 hours, reaching speeds of almost 60 mph, followed by their ground team, Mullis and Shelton, who took photos and retrieved the pilots after landing.

For the 44-hour journey, pilots and drivers slept in shifts. Supplies, including food, survival gear and a portable toilet, are stored in the basket with the pilots. Piloting isn’t always relaxing. “People think, ‘Oh, do you read books and listen to music?’ and we’re actually working the entire time,” said White.

Instruments must be constantly monitored, and ballast weight in the form of 900 pounds of sand must be adjusted to ensure a smooth, safe flight.

Adjustments to elevation are also made to catch different winds at different altitudes, in hopes to catch the fastest one and travel the furthest distance possible before running out of hydrogen. Information in that regard is fed to the pilots by a meteorologist assigned to the team. Pilots are also in contact with air traffic control, and ensure the risk of collision with passenger jets or other air vehicles is kept to a minimum.

Autumn colors

An aerial view of the autumn colors near Mille Lacs Lake.

Driving wasn’t a cake walk either. Similar to the pilots, drivers slept in shifts, and constantly had to check maps and find roads that would keep them near the balloon. Compared to the 1,000 miles traveled by balloon, over 1,700 miles were traveled by road below.

After being advised of inclement weather moving into the area, team nine’s pilots decided to land before the winds picked up for the worst, and ended up near Aitkin.

“We didn’t want to fly in the bad weather,” said White.

The pilots and drivers were greeted by the Bowsers, whom they visited with briefly before loading up the truck and leaving just before noon to return to the fiesta.

“They were fascinating,” said Sally. “They were really lovely.” She hopes to see them again in the future.

White was impressed with the hospitality offered in Aitkin, and remarked on the beauty of the area.

“I don’t think we could have chosen a more beautiful place to land,” she stated, and also mentioned the fall colors and historic buildings.

Team nine’s aircraft

Team nine’s aircraft after being inflated with gas at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Park.

Both White and Sullivan have been flying balloons for over three decades. White started flying in 1974, at the age of 13. Sullivan earned his commercial license in 1983, and now has over 3,200 hours of flight experience. They make up the FlyGas international gas balloon team, which takes part in the America’s Challenge Balloon Race and the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, the oldest gas balloon race in the world. The pair has won the America’s Challenge twice, in 2008 and 2012.

This year, team nine placed sixth among the nine teams. Results for the race can be found at https://balloonfiesta.com/Americas-Challenge-Live .

More information about the FlyGas team and pilots can be found at https://www.flygas.net/about-the-team.html .

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