The right turn: late-night call kept balloonists on course to break records
The first words the record-breaking balloonist Troy Bradley spluttered to his wife Tami upon landing in the sea off after crossing the Pacific were: “I hate sailing.”
He followed, moments after, with: “I love you.” Then he called his 97-year-old grandmother and his mother to reassure them that he was safe.
Bradley and his fellow pilot, Russian Leonid Tiukhtyaev, had just smashed the “holy grail” of ballooning records by – or six days, 16 hours and 37 minutes – and beating the previous endurance record of 137 hours, which was set in 1978 during the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
“He gets very seasick and he was in rough shape when they picked him up, even though he was very happy to be down and glad about the choice to land in the water,” Tami Bradley told the Guardian on Sunday. “We’re feeling great, though. This whole thing is unbelievable.”
Bradley and Tiukhtyaev also shattered the balloon distance record, with a flight of 6,646 miles. The previous furthest flight, of 5,209 miles, was set in the first balloon crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1981.
The extra distance was partly garnered by a knife-edge decision made in the middle of the night last week, when Bradley made a tense phone call to his wife – a balloon pilot herself – and the two figured out he would have to veer south toward Mexico, instead of the first-choice plan to land in Canada, because of a change in the weather.
“That was tough because he thought they would be down in 24 hours and they had to keep going another 48 hours,” Tami Bradley said.
By the time the balloon glided into the sea four miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, Troy Bradley, 50, was exhausted and freezing cold.
“He was in the early stages of hypothermia, he was dehydrated and fatigued and seasick,” said his wife. “He called me three minutes after landing and he was soaking wet from head to foot because there was water coming into the capsule.”
Bradley said her husband and Tiukhtyaev had celebrated milestones during their flight, but after landing Troy seemed so overwhelmed both physically and mentally that he had not commented in that first phone call on the extraordinary records he and his partner had just broken.
He was due to fly – in a jet plane – back to his home in Albuquerque, , on Sunday afternoon. Tami Bradley said they planned to head to the country club for steak.
Ballooning enthusiasts planned to line the streets of Albuquerque on Sunday to welcome the hero home. The city is a magnet for balloonists because of the combination of the valley it sits in and mountains to the east, which creates consistent wind and weather. Albuquerque hosts the largest ballooning event in the world every year, attracting more than 500 hot air balloons.
The Mexican navy brought Bradley back to dry land, where he was able to change out of the cold-weather outfit he wore all the way across the Pacific.
“I saw the T-shirt he was wearing when he landed and it was the same T-shirt he took off in,” Tami Bradley said.
The massive helium balloon flew mostly above 15,000ft, necessitating the use of oxygen. The floor space in the capsule was only as large as a queen-size bed and just 5ft high. The two slept in rotation, on a small cot.
Dean Carlton, a regional director with the Balloon Federation of America, said the only control over direction the pilots had was to choose a wind layer and release helium to sink or throw out sand bags to rise, in order to join that particular flow of wind.
“Two guys on their own taking this journey would be hazardous, but they were being assisted by some of the best meteorologists in the world to make critical choices,” Carlton said.
But when Troy called Tami at 1.30am on Thursday, about 400 miles out from land, he asked for his wife’s judgment.
The wind flow taking the balloon towards the intended landing location in the Canadian province of Alberta had weakened.
“He said everything had changed and he needed help making some decisions because fatigue was setting in,” said Tami, 41.
She snapped awake at “mission control” in Albuquerque, looked at the charts and realised her husband needed to turn to the south and rise above 20,000ft to join an air stream flowing down the west coast of the US.
“I said, ‘You have got to make that turn, you have to.’ That way we were guaranteed to get him to land safely and that was no longer guaranteed over Canada. He wasn’t frightened – in fact he was not frightened at any point in the flight – but he was relieved to have his flight plan at that point,” she said.
The only time Tami heard alarm in her husband’s voice, she said, was when he spotted lightning on the approach to Mexico. It moved off, though, and the balloon floated to the ocean’s surface – and into the history books – on Saturday morning.