Update: October 4, 2017
Who are the men and women who will be competing in this year’s America’s Challenge, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta's distance race for gas balloons?
The eight teams in this year’s race come from different backgrounds and different nations. They share a love of flying, an adventurous spirit, and the will to win. They will see America in a way few others have before them – suspended thousands of feet aloft as mountains, plains, cities, farms, and rivers glide below them. And . . . they are an elite: they rank among the best balloon pilots in the world. To get to know them better, read on!
- Phil Bryant and Mike Emich, USA: Ten-time America’s Challenge competitor Phil Bryant, from Houston, is a tenacious foe who’s notched some good results. He was second in the 2013 race and has finished as high as sixth in the Gordon Bennett, crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. Bryant is the former president of the Balloon Federation of America. Although this is Mike Emich’s second America’s Challenge, he has one of the most impressive resumes in ballooning; his early experiences in gas ballooning brought him into contact with some of the greatest American balloonists of all time, including Ward T. van Orman, who won his first of three Gordon Bennett races in 1926! Emich’s lifelong fascination with balloons began when he was 12, when he started working with the great pioneers of American gas ballooning in the Akron Lighter-Than-Air Society. He has built and flown both hot air and gas balloons, has set several world records, and was a key member of the support team for the Earthwinds attempts to fly non-stop around the world. Oh, and he’s sky-dived out of a Boeing 727.
- Wilhelm Eimers and Sebastian Eimers, Germany: There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Wilhelm Eimers’ storied ballooning career. To hit just a couple of the highlights: he is a four-time Gordon Bennett winner (world champion), and since 1995 has held the world duration record for competition-size gas balloons of an astonishing 92 hours 11 minutes. Eimers’ luck in the America’s Challenge hasn’t been as good, but in his nine appearances in Albuquerque he’s made it into the top three four times. This year son Sebastian is Eimers’ co-pilot, as the Iron Man of distance gas ballooning starts to wind down a storied career and hand his legacy over to Sebastian and his other son, Benni. In all, between the Gordon Bennett and America’s Challenge, this will be Eimers’ 36th distance gas race.
- Noah Forden and Bert Padelt, USA: It was the feel-good story of the 2016 America’s Challenge. After Bert Padelt’s co-pilot had to drop out of the race at almost the last minute, Padelt – a seasoned America’s Challenge competitor and master balloon builder – invited Noah Forden along as co-pilot. Forden, though an experienced hot-air balloonist and fixed wing aviator, had only had his gas balloon rating for all of six months. They went on to finish third, Forden grinning from ear to ear throughout at his good fortune. This year, Forden – who trained with Padelt and members of the Aero Club of America – will be competing in his newly-built Padelt gas balloon with Bert flying as his co-pilot. Padelt may be best-known in Albuquerque as the builder of the Two Eagles 350,000 cu. ft. balloon envelope that carried Troy Bradley and Leonid Tiukhtyaev more than 6,600 miles (nearly 10,700 km) across the Pacific in 2015. Padelt could arguably claim to be the man who has kept gas ballooning in the U.S. alive through developing hydrogen-capable U.S.-built gas balloon systems that are reasonably affordable to fly.
- Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo, USA: Fricke and Cuneo, from Albuquerque, are the only four-time-winning America’s Challenge team (2001, 2010, 2013, 2016). Only one pilot has more wins to his credit, the late Richard Abruzzo, who won five times with four different co-pilots. Fricke and Cuneo are coming off a top-10 finish in this year’s Gordon Bennett and were fourth in that race in 2016. Fricke and Cuneo are also known as balloon builders (three hot air balloons and a gas balloon basket) and for participating in a number of unusual flights, including the re-creation of an attempt to prove ancient balloon builders may have helped create the Nazca lines in Peru. Both have served in leadership positions in many ballooning organizations (Barbara is currently a member of the Balloon Fiesta Board of Directors and the board of the Balloon Federation of America gas balloon division). They are each flying in their 19th America’s Challenge; in previous races they’ve crossed Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan.
- Benôit Pelard and Benôit Péterlé, France: This team of French veterans are longtime Gordon Bennett competitors and the other feel-good story from last year’s America’s Challenge. Pelard and his co-pilot for last year’s race, Laurent Lajoye, captured hearts when they took advantage of an unusual track to the west in an attempt to fly to the Grand Canyon. They didn’t quite make it to the big gorge, but were very excited they got to see the Painted Desert from the air and touched by the warm welcome when they landed on the Navajo (Diné) reservation. And oh, the other adventures this team has had! They hail from Lorraine (where Joan of Arc was born) and named their balloon Marie Marvingt, after the pioneering balloonist and aviatrix who pioneered air ambulance services and crossed the English Channel by balloon in a fierce storm in 1906. Pelard, Péterlé, and Lajoye recreated that 1906 flight (sans storm) in 2010, flying from Nancy in France to Sissinghurst in England. Pelard and Péterlé finished just out of the top 10 in this year’s Gordon Bennett and are competing for the third time in the America’s Challenge.
- Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, USA: There is one competitor who has flown even more distance races that Eimers – Albuquerque’s Mark Sullivan. He just completed his 21st Gordon Bennett flight, the second most in the 61-year history of the race, and his 41 combined America’s Challenge and Gordon Bennett starts bests Willie’s 36. Sullivan, from Albuquerque, and White, from Austin, TX, are two-time America’s Challenge winners (2008, 2012) and finished third in the 2009 Gordon Bennett. A multiple-award-winning competitor in both hot air and gas balloons and the current president of the world ballooning federation, Sullivan is the founder of the America’s Challenge and a board member and past president of AIBF. Cheri White will be flying in her 13th America’s Challenge and is a formidable competitor in hot air as well as gas balloons. She’s the reigning US Women’s National Hot-Air Balloon Champion, and finished third in the most recent Women’s World Hot Air Balloon Championships.
- Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz, Switzerland: This Swiss team of up-and-coming young guns is competing in their first America’s Challenge, but they’re a team to watch and could sneak in to frustrate the veterans. They’ve proved themselves to be tough to beat in the Gordon Bennett, finishing third in 2015, second in 2016, and fourth this year after coming into the race as one of the favorites. Tièche and Sciboz were the rousingly-cheered home team at this year’s Gordon Bennett, which was hosted by their home town of Fribourg and launched from nearby Gruyères, a stunning mountain valley setting not far from the Swiss Alps.
- Krzysztof Zapart, Poland, and Andy Cayton, USA: In a very short period of time, Krzysztof Zapart the jovial pilot from Poland, has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the gas ballooning world. He’s finished in the top ten in the last three world championships and has been runner-up twice in the America’s Challenge (2014 and 2016). This year he teams with two-time America’s Challenge winner Andy Cayton, known for daring victories in 2006 and 2007 which involved crossing the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 and a dramatic landing in Saskatchewan in 2007. Both Zapart and Cayton have demonstrated a willingness to hang it all out there to win, and should be a force to be reckoned with.
Weather permitting, the America's Challenge will launch from Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta Park at around 6 PM on Saturday, October 7. Once the balloons launch, you can follow their progress and receive regular updates through the Balloon Fiesta website, balloonfiesta.com, and the free Balloon Fiesta apps for iPhone and Android.