by Micki Killingsworth
Several years ago, Pat and Susan Harwell paged through the record books. They were looking for a record they could both participate in. After much discussion, they decided on the AX-4 record. This wouldn't be easy for Pat, as he is six feet, five inches and weighs in at 220 pounds. Nonetheless, after doing the calculations, they decided that it was indeed a record they could share.
Pat and Susan went looking for someone to build their envelope. They talked with Guy Gauthier, of Balloon Repairs of East Texas. Guy agreed to build their experimental 31,000 cubic feet envelope of a super lightweight fabric. Pat spoke with friend Ernie Ethridge, retired NOAA meteorologist from Shreveport. Ernie was happy to handle the weather program for the Harwells. Pat began building a chair for their balloon. He used one and one-quarter inch aluminum tubing for the bottom section of his frame. Using 4 u-bolts, he attached it to three-quarter inch plywood, to make the frame rigid. Their seat would be a 25 gallon lay-down stainless steel tank. One and one-quarter inch straps held the tank to the frame. Pat then added the uprights and HP3 single burner from their Aurora basket, to finish off the chair. After several tests and minor adjustments, they were ready to go. They would name their balloon Black Tie Affair.
Both Pat and Susan Harwell have taken their rides into the record books. They each chose a different approach to accomplishing this feat. Susan opted for a low key approach, challenging her friends and fellow Shreveport pilots to a long jump. Pat took a more aggressive approach, pushing both himself and the system to its limits. Below is the a family story of how they accomplished their goals.
The decision was made for Susan to set her record first, as they knew Pat's flight would push the envelope to its limits. She challenged the local pilots to do a long jump with her. Three pilots, Karen Gordon, Bill Harwell, and Michael Gullo, took Susan up on the challenge. On January 24, 1998, the four pilots, crew, and observers met at the Oil City boat launch at Caddo Lake, Louisiana to assemble their equipment. Susan would carry an extra 10 gallon tank for a total of 35 gallons of fuel. She launched Black Tie Affair at 7:52 CST, weighing 420 pounds, in 30 degree temperatures.
Karen, Bill, and Michael would spend the next 2 hours working as Susan's pibals. They took turns ascending and descending, reporting their wind speeds. Susan would use these readings to adjust her altitude and stay in the fastest wind speeds. With her small envelope, Susan spent most of her time on the burner. She stayed busy throughout the flight, but would later comment that it was a little scary looking down between her legs, and seeing nothing there but her dangling feet. The group was averaging 20 mph, with most of the flight spent between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. The pilots were having a great time! They chatted amongst themselves, and the ground crew would cheer as the lead balloon would change hands several times before the flight was over. They were flying a new area, and it was to be Karen, Bill, and Michael's farthest and longest flights to date.
As the pilots approached the intersection of Highway 1 and Red River Parish 410, south of Shreveport, Louisiana a decision had to be made. If they chose to fly on, they would cross the Red River and head into the Louisiana swamp lands. The decision was made to land. Susan came over the trees and across an open field where she had a stand-up landing. Pat was there to greet her, and with a little assistance Susan flew the system over the fence where the envelope was deflated next to the road. She had traveled 46.4 miles, surpassing the Feminine AX-4 Distance record by 9.4 miles. Susan landed at 10:14 CST, having spent two hours and 21 minutes in the air. She landed with 12 gallons of fuel remaining. Karen, Bill , and Michael were pleased with their flights, and excited to be involved in the setting of a new world record. They're now discussing the possibility of doing more group long jumps next winter.
While everyone else thought the good record breaking weather had passed until next season, Pat was still watching the weather. On March 8, he called Ernie Ethridge to discuss the approaching weather system. By that evening, they had decided there was a great chance for launch on Monday, March 9. The next morning, everyone assembled at the Harwell's and headed out to the east side of Shreveport, where Pat was to launch.
Pat carried two extra 15 gallon stainless steel tanks, for a total of 55 gallons of propane. Due to 15-20 mph ground winds, Pat decided not to use an `inflation' tank, and at 7:02 CST Black Tie Affair was in the air again. Total system weight was 660 pounds, and the temperature a frigid 28 degrees.
The first part of Pat's flight was spent trying to get into the fastest wind. The winds would force him down, and as he pushed back up, it would shove him above the wind. He watched as the small clouds rolled over themselves. They were traveling one direction, and he was going the other. He found if he rode right above these clouds, he could get extra 8-10 mph. He soon reached speeds of 52 mph, traveling between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. When Pat finished his first tank 40 minutes into the flight, he dropped down and released the tank. He ascended back to altitude using his second 15 gallon tank.
This second tank lasted one hour and 20 minutes, and after descending and dropping the extra weight, he felt the balloon was getting easier to manage. Pat was traveling the length of Louisiana, tracking 357 degrees. He spent the rest of the flight in speeds of 31-50 mph, getting two hours and 40 minutes out of his last 25 gallon tank.
Pat was fast approaching the end of his fuel, and landing areas were few and far between. He was in the midst of the southern Louisiana rice paddies, and everywhere he looked there was standing water and mud. This, combined with a ground speed of over 20 mph, made it extremely difficult for him to land.
Pat was traveling so fast the crew had no time to waste. When he passed up the first landing area, the race was on. The crew jumped into their vehicles and headed down the road. Pat was able to provide information on what was ahead, and the crew headed down another road, readying themselves for the next attempt. Pat approached the next field. Up, up, up and away he went. Having been caught in a thermal, he had no choice but to ride it out. The crew moved on. The next road caught a good view of Pat's approach. Pat, in the meantime, had declared there would be no more radio contact. As the crew stood waiting, he found a field and took the balloon down. Everyone watched as the top of the envelope disappeared onto the ground.
The trek through the mud to where the balloon was laying was a quiet one. Part of Pat's helmet lay in the field. Only seeing his face brought relief to all who witnessed the landing. Pat landed southeast of Ragley, Louisiana at 11:36 CST, having flown 140 miles in four hours and 33 minutes. He surpassed the record by approximately 10 miles.
Pat and Susan Harwell would like to thank the following: Bill Bussey, for sharing his stories and giving tips in preparing for these flights. Ernie Ethridge, for all the meteorological information he provided. Guy Gauthier, for hanging around after building the balloon to be the official NAA observer.
What's next for Pat and Susan Harwell? Well... they're going to sit back, relax, and play with their toy balloon.
With two long jumps of over 100 miles, several altitude flights above 10,000 feet, and countless hard landings while instructing students, I felt that I was properly prepared for the task ahead. I had practiced high wind landings in the 31A, and had over six hours of flight time in the system.
It had been a stress-filled four hour flight in unstable air, twisting and bouncing in my balloon at 4,000 feet as I crossed the state of Louisiana. I was now to land in 20-plus mph winds during mid-day thermals, carrying very little fuel.
The first approach was into a rice field with nothing but water and mud. The crew urged me to land, but I aborted due to inaccessibility and my fear of drowning. I leveled off at 100 feet and headed for the next open field, half mile down wind. As I approached an asphalt road, Black Tie Affair contorted and climbed to around 1,200 feet, without me having given it any heat. It was time for me to get down to business! The balloon was extremely difficult to handle, and I had less than two gallons of fuel remaining. I radioed the crew that there would be no more communication until I had landed. The thermal spit me out and collapsed the envelope about half-way. I heated to keep the envelope open, and decided to ride it to the ground. The next minute or so was like riding a wild horse. At around 400 feet, I felt a strong twisting motion, and warm air hit my face from another thermal. Another big burn to replace the heat I had lost, and I was now lined up on some rural powerlines. A third burn and a gust of wind carried me over the powerlines and behind a house. With the pilot light off, I hit dead center in the back yard, traveling at 20 mph lateral speed, and 700 feet per minute impact speed. The vent line was ripped from my hand when the balloon spinnakered, and what followed was a 50 yard slide into a 12 foot tree. Up, over, and through the tree I went, knocking me clear of the uprights and dislodging my burner. I was harnessed into the system, so my ride was not yet over. I had another 100 yard slide ahead of me, while I pulled on the vent line. The ride included snapping two small trees, bursting my helmet, and abruptly stopping when the uprights slammed into a 4 inch wide tree trunk. For the next few seconds, I held on to the vent line, to make sure this ride was over. I called Susan to tell her "I'm okay."
The flight was over but no one was jumping for joy about my breaking the record. Everyone that witnessed the final moments of this flight were concerned about my safety. I thank them for that.
A mid-day landing is absolutely not a good plan. Unstable air is tough to fly in, and records are records for a reason. Do not underestimate Mother Nature! You can get hurt or even die from your mistakes. My tank gauge read less than 5% on landing. I flew to the very edge of my abilities on this day.