Think of it, 50 hours 38 minutes in an open balloon basket, cramped space, burner noise, lack of sleep and then realizing that you broke two world balloon duration records. Until now, the AX-10 duration record was held by Maco Oiwa and Sabu Ichiyoshi (41 hours 29 minutes) and the absolute hot air balloon record by Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson (46 hours 15 minutes). Michio Kanda and Hiro Takezawa would now plan to use 'MAMBO', the same balloon that set the previous AX-10 duration record.
In late 1994, Canadian involvement with plans to exceed the present balloon duration record began with a Japanese team scouting the area of southern Alberta for a suitable base of operations. Pilot-in-command Michio Kanda and co-pilot Hiro Takezawa together with other team members would take up the challenge. Two Calgary balloonists, Bill Lester and myself, together with the assistance of many other volunteers, would be called on to make all necessary local arrangements in preparation for the flight.
Stettler, Alberta was chosen for the first attempt in January 1996. After launch, an unfavorable wind direction was taking them into a sparsely settled area in the northern part of Canada. Attempts to change direction used excessive amounts of fuel necessitating a landing after 21 hours. After returning to Japan, the team made the decision to return for a second attempt two months later but weather conditions failed to co-operate in order to even consider a launch.
Because of their determination, the team returned again this year with the two pilots and support members, Sabu Ichiyoshi, Maco Oiwa and Masashi Kakuda. Again a concentrated effort took place to prepare for another attempt. This time the base was located near Calgary, Alberta, providing for more flexibility of options.
On January 27th, with the assistance of some twenty volunteer members from the Calgary Balloon Club, the balloon lifted off on its second attempt to break the record. A temperature of minus 26 degrees Celsius and windy conditions made for a very difficult launch. Two hours into the flight, a tear developed in a lower panel. Although this did not create an emergency situation, it would have a profound effect on the fuel consumption, thus a decision was made to land.
Not submitting to defeat, repairs were made to the envelope and three days later the determined pilots and support group was ready to try again. This time, surface winds were calm, temperature was minus seven Celsius, and the weather pattern appeared to be favorable for the entire area. Again, an enthusiastic crew, working under the direction of the Japanese team, had the balloon rigged and ready for lift off earlier than anticipated. Eight tanks containing 2600 liters of heated propane fuel were suspended from the basket, all necessary equipment was on board and the balloon was ready to lift off on what was to be, its third and final record setting flight. Mambow was airborne at 8:54 A.M.
Light winds kept the balloon in the immediate area for over an hour giving adequate time for the two chase vehicles and seven crew members to organize themselves for the long chase ahead. One chase vehicle, designated as the control center, was equipped with a table for map plotting and space to accommodate radio and phone equipment used to communicate with the flight crew and base station in Calgary. At least once every hour, data including G.P.S. position, altitude, track and envelope temperature would be transmitted to the control center. Current and forecast weather conditions as well as upper wind information for stations along the projected route was frequently being passed to the pilots.
All necessary approvals to comply with air regulations and to transit the area had been arranged beforehand. The flight crew could thus keep their communications limited to those with the control center. This was also the case should the flight cross the border into U.S. airspace. Approval had also been granted to drop empty fuel cylinders with parachutes attached, provided they would create no hazard to persons or property on the ground. >From the time of lift off the balloon followed a flight path north to the City of Red Deer, east into the province of Saskatchewan and then south across the U.S. border into Montana, attaining a maximum speed the second evening of 53 kilometers per hour and covering a distance of 1002 kilometers during the 50 hours 38 minutes. Altitude during the flight varied from 3000 feet to 7300 feet MSL.
The flight would have its anxious moments. During the second evening after much of the fuel had been used and all but two of the cylinders jettisoned, the envelope temperature was indicating a cool 40 Celsius. While flying through a layer of cold, very moist air, ice formed on the inner skin of the mylar lining. It then cracked, broke apart and as reported by the pilot, "ice cubes fell into the basket." Their concern was eased when climbing to a higher altitude alleviated the problem.
Approaching the second evening with only one, 100 kilogram tank of fuel remaining there was some doubt that it would be sufficient, first, to last them through the night, and second, to carry them beyond 7:47 A.M., the time when the absolute record would be broken. However, fortunately, with the lightened load, little fuel was required to keep the balloon aloft.
The most exciting and glorious moment of all came with a report from Michio, the pilot-in-command, at 7:50 A.M. that they were still airborne. Much to our surprise they were able to continue their flight for another 3 hours with the benefit of solar heating. The balloon and occupants had no problem crossing the border into the, U.S, It was a different matter for the chase crew. Ports of entry are few and far between in this area of Canada and many have limited hours of operation. After a two hour wait at Morgan, Montana, the gates finally opened at 9 A.M. and following a short visit to customs the chase continued.
Landing took place at a remote ranch in central Montana, much to the surprise of the friendly owners. The landowners wife made the comment, "We are a farming and ranching operation so most of the things we see are traveling by land." With enthusiasm they assisted in packing up the equipment and then invited everyone to their home for fresh blueberry muffins. They expressed regret not having been given sufficient notice to prepare a roast. What superb hospitality!
Truly, a wonderful conclusion to a record setting flight. Now the balloon and all associated equipment has been prepared for shipment back to Japan where I'm sure plans are under way to achieve new records with 'Mambo' and its dedicated crew.