We Flew 350km East Above the TOPS of the ALPS!

Team Australia slept last night in an Italian farmhouse/villa 30km east of Venice. I woke today coming down from the euphoria of the last couple of days and feeling incredibly emotional. Mark, Penny, Axel, Becca and Mason drove off to Venice for the day to buy clothes as we all had so little with us and to be tourists. Tanys John and I chose a quiet day at home. I am writing this blog while I can recall the facts. One more night here then we head west towards Bern and the final Awards Dinner and Prize Giving Saturday night 6th October.

Race day was more than hectic with finalising our gear, basket set up (thank you Tanys you did an excellent job with that) and Detlef driving the ground work to prepare us for launch.

Dear friends Shawn Mackinga, Jean-Michel and Marie Hieber turned up at our basket to wave us off. With fast winds approaching the officials wasted no time at the podium launch. Sand bags off! Sand bags off! then we were airborne to the Australian National Anthem. Our flight plan was to cross the Alps head for either Italy or Solvenia, maybe Croatia.

One airborne there was no time to relax or take photos.

Night lights over the basket bside. Talked with Bern Air Traffic Control. Got our transponder and radio working – cleared to 15,000 feet – switched to Zurich Air Traffic Control. After dumping 20 bags of sand from our total of 42 the balloon settled into equilibrium on top of the Alps.

From 10pm through to dawn I flew the balloon dropping tablespoons of sand to fly level, to conserve sand (ballast) Tanys ensured our navigation was spot on and in the early hours of morning talked with our Team. At our HQ Ab Maas and Rien Jurg along with Mark Wilson and Becca Wilhelm had little sleep too.

As dawn lit the sky we had 17 bags of sand or 153 kilos of sand as we took 9 kilos per bag instead of the usual 10. Each bag had to be lifted over the side of the basket and Tanys and I knew once we reached a tiredness that could become more physical. It was the best decision of our race.

We had a final 2 mountain ranges to cross then assess our next options. Try to track south through Italy or head to Solvenia.

At the general briefing the Italian PAVODA ATC rules were so confronting. One section required a 16 to 19000ft height. I turned to Tanys and said “we are not flying there” Of course we flew right through that airspace. I nervously requested 14,500 feet with a step down to 9500 feet then onto the coastal plain. Our new PAVODA friend did not hesitate to grant our request. Relief flooded through me/us.

Finally we could see the coast about 9am – Two more valley ranges to cross with still 17 bags.
Nature threw everything at us over the next 3 hours. we lost 15 bags of sand recovering from
thermals pushing us towards the mountain edge, watching thick huge white clouds swirling towards us, washing around us, wind dropping speed to 3km/hr hovering in the middle of the valley. Patience and prayers finally got us over the last mountain. We descended to 6000 feet with the Aviano Air Base (an Italian/USA NATO Base) in our path. Their mission – Lethal Rapidly Ready. And they were ready for the 2 Aussie Gals in their gas balloon.

Weary from no sleep, little food or water, temperatures that had my body and teeth shivering and shaking I counted 2 bags of sand left. Those 2 bags of sand were as precious as gold to Tanys and myself.

“We cannot climb. We need our ballast”. My reply to their Air Traffic Command. “What are your intentions? Where will you land? Will you land in the next 5 miles?”

“We will land as soon as we find a suitable place” was all I could reply.

“When you descend through 2500 feet please advise”.

And we did.

“We are losing distance waffling around this area flying back along our track” I lamented out loud. My competitive spirit was not totally lost.

“I don’t care. Let’s land” said my amazingly sensible co-pilot. And land we did – throwing out the final 2 bags of sand as we skimmed across a vineyard. One final throw of gear from our basket (that’s a secret) and we missed bruising any grapevines. Wind was about 8 to 9 km/hr as our basket hit mother earth and tipped over at 1.20pm.

As they say in aviation “any landing you can walk away from is a success”.

Tanys McCarron and I crawled out of the basket, stood up, hugged each other then sat down again. Our Race Was Over. Distance flown 409.26km Time in Basket 17hrs 27 mins.

Our wonderful team found us about 5 hours later to much celebration and champagne toasts with our landowner Sergio Gelisi.

Videos at www.facebook.com/Gordon-Bennett-team-WilsonMcCarron.

What will tomorrow bring?

Pilots above the Alps

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Our final landing in Pordenone Italy, East of Venice.

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