Update 11 AM MDT (1700 UTC) October 27, 2016
In a race which may have set a new standard for directional diversity, patience paid off as Albuquerque's Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke outlasted the field to win their fourth America's Challenge distance race for gas balloons.
Cuneo and Fricke are the first team to, as a team, win the race four times (2001, 2010, 2013, 2016). Only the late, great Richard Abruzzo has more wins – five – achieved with four different co-pilots.
See the full results here!
In addition to winning the America's Challenge, during the flight Peter Cuneo was announced as this year's winner of the Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association's (AAAA) Sid Cutter Award, one of the most prestigous awards in American ballooning. The award is given to individuals whose extraordinary dedication has benefitted the ballooning community as a whole and whose actions and efforts are otherwise not widely or publically recognized. The award was announced at the Balloon Fiesta awards ceremony and the news was texted to Peter while he and Barbara were aloft over Kansas; Peter, whose generosity and willingness to help fellow balloonists is as legendary as his flying resume, later told us he was "blown away" on receiving the news.
By America's Challenge standards, where winning distances routinely exceed 1,000 miles (1,609 km) this was a relatively short race. Cuneo and Fricke flew 1,395 km – about 866 miles – and stayed aloft 54 hours and 39 minutes. The first part of their race was very slow: after three hours aloft, their balloon was sitting pretty much right over . . . Balloon Fiesta Park! While this was frustrating in a distance race, it was also strategic, as their plan was to stall out over central New Mexico for the first several hours of the race in order to catch a developing weather pattern which would push them into the Midwest. They eventually made it almost all the way to the Mississippi River, landing near Monroe City, MO, about 20 miles from the river town of Hannibal made famous by native son Mark Twain and the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Meanwhile, the second-place team, Krzysztof Zapart and Bazyli Dawidzuik of Poland, chose a totally different strategy. They climbed quickly out of the Rio Grande Valley and streaked over the Sandia Mountains and across Texas, reaching east Texas in a blistering 22 hours. But after that, they simply couldn't find winds to take them further east. They wound up heading south and landing near Smiley, TX, east of San Antonio, after a 37+ hour flight of 1,082 km (672 miles).
The third place winners, Bert Padelt and Noah Forden, followed a similar path to Cuneo and Fricke and landed near Hanston, KS after a flight of 690 km (429 miles). But the fourth-place team, France's Benôit Pelard and Laurent Lajoye, charted a different course altogether, heading in the opposite direction from their competitors and achieving an America's Challenge first – a landing on the Navajo (Diné) reservation in Arizona. Although they didn't get to the Grand Canyon, which was their aim, Pelard and Lajoye's incredibly scenic flight took them into sight of the fabled Painted Desert and ended with an unforgettably warm reception from the Navajo people near White Ruin, AZ.
Finishing in fifth place were Phil Bryant and Mike Emich, who ended their race early and had a windy landing just north of Albuquerque. The final team, Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, had to withdraw before the launch.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta inaugurated the America's Challenge race for gas balloons in 1995; this was the 21st year the event has been held. The Balloon Fiesta has also hosted the world's other great distance race for gas balloons, the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, four times (1993, 1999, 2005, 2008). The object of both races is to achieve the greatest distance from the launch point. The America's Challenge is the American qualifying event for the Gordon Bennett, which is considered to be the gas ballooning world championship event.