Troy Bradley of the USA and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia launched from Saga, Japan in the early hours of Sunday 25th January local time in their gas balloon ‘Two Eagles’ beginning their attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean. They hope to break the world distance and duration records for flights in a gas balloon. They have now been in flight for 63 hours, and have travelled 5327km / 3310 miles! You can track their progress live and receive updates from flight control here: http://www.pacificballoon.com/tracking/index.php
The pilots have reported that they are having a wonderful flight so far, and are enjoying the views! Below is a photo of their sunset view of Mount Fuji as they flew over Japan, tracking towards the pacific.
The world distance record for a gas balloon flight is 8,382.54 km / 5,208 miles, set in 1981 by the crew of gas balloon ‘Double Eagle V’ which completed the first trans-pacific balloon flight, flying from Nagashima, Japan to Covello, California, USA. The world duration record for a flight in a gas balloon is 137 hours, 5 minutes and 50 seconds, set in 1978 when the crew of ‘Double Eagle II’ flew from Presque Isle, Maine, USA to Miserey, France.
This description from Two Eagles HQ describes what it is like for the two pilots in their capsule: “Imagine just for a moment that your living room, kitchen, office, bedroom, media center, and (yes) bathroom were in a space the size of a king-sized bed, with a ceiling too low for most adults to stand upright. Then imagine you were sharing this space with a roommate. And then, imagine that this space is suspended 18,000 feet over the world’s largest body of water.
This gives you just a glimpse of what life is like aboard the Two Eagles balloon, as pilots Leonid Tiukhtyaev and Troy Bradley continue their quest to cross the Pacific Ocean and set a new distance record for gas balloons.
Their “home” for the crossing is a five-foot by seven-foot capsule built in Albuquerque by Composite Tooling. It is a Kevlar/carbon-fiber composite, giving it tremendous strength at a very light weight (about 220 lbs or 100 kg). It is designed to withstand the impact of a hard landing and provide shelter from whatever inhospitable conditions may be encountered.
But comfort? Not so much. The capsule is only five feet high. Tiukhtyaev and Bradley can only stand upright in the center of the gondola, where there is a bubble-shaped hatch. Wearing safety harnesses, they often have to crawl out on top of the capsule to maneuver the balloon – release gas from the top to go down, or release sand ballast (expendable weight) to go up.
Inside, there’s a narrow platform on which one of the pilots can sleep and a couple of small shelves for communications gear and flight instruments. There’s a propane heater, so despite outside temperatures that can drop well below zero, the capsule actually stays fairly warm.
For food, the pilots carry freeze-dried hikers’ meals, fresh fruit, beef jerky, energy bars, and other quick and easy foods to eat. They also carry “comfort foods” – their favorite snacks – to entice them to eat. Drinking lots of fluids – water, electrolyte-replacement drinks, and other beverages – is very important to prevent dehydration, especially since the pilots spend most of the flight at high altitudes that require oxygen. But pilots who fly long distance gas flights will tell you, almost to a man or woman, is that they almost have to force themselves to eat. They simply don’t have much of an appetite.
In their “cockpit”, the pilots have the most advanced avionics and communications equipment package ever carried by a transoceanic balloon. Their arsenal includes radios and transponders for communications with air traffic control facilities, trackers that report the balloon’s position to Mission Control and the live tracking page .”
How does a gas balloon fly?
Gas balloons use a lighter than air gas such as helium or hydrogen to provide lift. This particular balloon was filled with helium at the beginning of the flight, and the helium has to last all the way across the Pacific. After all, there are no mid-air helium refueling stations in the middle of the ocean!
The balloon loses gas in the course of the flight, because the balloon over-pressurizes and “burps” gas through an opening (appendix) at the bottom of the balloon as it heats during the day, and because the pilots release gas to maneuver. Therefore, in order for the balloon to maintain altitude, the pilots have to get rid of weight. For that purpose, the pilots carry expendable weight, called “ballast,” in the form of sand, carried in big bags that hang outside the capsule. Two Eagles took off with almost five tons of sand (9,360 pounds or 4,246 kg), contained in 40-pound bags. In this photo you can see the coloured sand bags hanging from the Two Eagles balloon as it launches in Japan. The colour coding helps the pilots keep track of how much ballast they have used during the flight.
You might think of the combination of gas and ballast as fuel. If the pilots want to go up, they get rid of ballast. To come down, they can open a valve at the top of the balloon to release gas. Because valving and ballasting are the equivalent of burning fuel, the pilots try to do as little of both as possible. Loss of gas and ballast equals loss of duration (potential time aloft) and, therefore, distance.
The balloon is also affected by solar heating. In the early morning as the sun comes up, it heats the gas inside the balloon, which causes it to expand and provides lift. The pilots in essence get a “free ride” to a higher altitude without having to expend ballast. As the sun goes down, the process reverses. The gas contracts, which causes the balloon to come down. In order to maintain altitude, the pilots have to ballast.
For the next several days over the Pacific, Bradley and Tiukhtyaev will use this combination of solar heating and cooling, ballasting, and valving gas to steer the balloon. Wind direction and speed varies with altitude, and so the pilots will ascend and descend to find winds that will take them where they want to go.