America's Challenge 2019 Competitors
September 22, 2019
Who are the men and women who will take on one of the greatest challenges in aerostation?
- Andy Cayton, USA and Krzysztof Zapart, Poland: In the last America’s Challenge, this team did pretty much everything but win. They smashed the former America’s Challenge record as well as the record for the greatest distance ever flown in a Coupe Gordon Bennett, the race recognized as the world championships for distance gas ballooning. They made it to eastern Quebec, within shouting distance of the Atlantic. But they ran out of real estate and resources, and after flying 2,186 miles (3,526 km) they had to land, losing the race, by less than 100 miles, to Swiss competitors Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz. Andy Cayton is a two-time America’s Challenge champion (2006 and 2007), a world and national record holder in hot air balloons, a former Army special forces aviator, and the runner-up in the 2018 Gordon Bennett. His daring America’s Challenge victories involved crossing the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 and a dramatic landing in Saskatchewan in 2007. He and co-pilot John Hagar finished 9th in this year’s Gordon Bennett. 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 three of the last four world championships and has been runner-up three times in the America’s Challenge (2014, 2016, 2017).
- Eric Decellieres and Vincent Leys, France: This is their first America’s Challenge race, but if the Vegas handicappers were setting odds on this race, this team might very well be the odds-on favorites. Vincent Leys is arguably the greatest gas balloon competitor of all time, a skilled pilot and strategic wizard who has won the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett a staggering nine times. He and teammate Christophe Houver made the Gordon Bennett podium again this year, finishing in a declared tie for third. However, this will be Leys’ first competition in the U.S. His teammate is Eric Decelleries, a relative newcomer to gas balloon competition, but who already has three Gordon Bennetts to his credit.
- Brian Duncan and Brenda Cowlishaw, USA: This team of Texans are experienced hot air balloon pilots competing in their first-ever gas balloon competition. They recently acquired their balloon from now-retired longtime America’s Challenge competitor Phil Bryant. Duncan and Cowlishaw trained in Germany with master pilot and long-time America’s Challenge competitor Wilhelm Eimers and his sons Benni and Sebastian, and also flew a training flight from Balloon Fiesta Park with America’s Challenge champion Peter Cuneo.
- Noah Forden and Bert Padelt, USA: Noah Forden began flying gas balloons just four years ago and got into his first America’s Challenge almost by accident, when Bert Padelt invited him to fill in for an ailing teammate. Padelt is a 17-year America’s Challenge competitor and one of the world’s premier builders of gas balloons. This year, they’re competing in their third America’s Challenge together. Forden, an experienced fixed-wing and hot air balloon pilot, trained in gas balloons with Padelt and members of the Aero Club of America. 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. He can 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 flying in their 20th America’s Challenge and are the only four-time-winning America’s Challenge team (2001, 2010, 2013, 2016). Only one pilot –the late Richard Abruzzo – has more individual America’s Challenge wins to his credit. Fricke and Cuneo have finished on the podium (2nd or 3rd) an additional seven times and have placed as high as third in the Gordon Bennett. In the epic 2017 America’s Challenge, they flew their best distance ever – more than 1,900 miles (3,122 km) – but in this fiercely competitive race wound up third. 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.
- Al Nels and Andy Baird, USA: Here is another team where the term “rookie” hardly applies, even though this is both pilots’ first America’s Challenge Race (as competitors, anyway). Al Nels is one of the world’s premier hot air balloon competitive pilots with the record to prove it: he is a two-time US national champion and a two-time world champion. Andy Baird is especially known as a balloon manufacturer, the President and General Manager of Cameron Balloons U.S, but he’s also a formidable hot air balloon competitor. In this year’s US Nationals, Baird finished 6th and Nels was 13th. Although this is his first America’s Challenge aloft, Andy has been part of the race’s official family for several years as chair of the race jury. Interestingly, though the pilots are flying in their first gas balloon race, the balloon they’re flying has actually won the America’s Challenge: it’s the balloon David Hempelman-Adams and Jon Mason flew to victory – and the race duration record – in 2011.
- Benoit Pelard and Benoit Peterle, France: This team of French veterans are longtime Gordon Bennett competitors who have fallen in love with touring the U.S. by balloon in the America’s Challenge. Pelard and his 2016 co-pilot 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 (Dine) reservation. In 2017, Pelard and Peterle set a French distance record before landing near Indianapolis. 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, Peterle, and Lajoye recreated that 1906 flight (sans storm) in 2010, flying from Nancy in France to Sissinghurst in England. Pelard and Peterle were part of the team of officials for the just completed Gordon Bennett.
Christian Wagner and Thomas Lewetz, Austria: Thomas Lewetz is returning to Albuquerque after an absence of nearly 25 years. With his longtime flying partner Silvia Wagner, Lewetz competed in the very first America’s Challenge in 1995. He is a veteran of five Gordon Bennett races, and as is the case for so many balloonists, he says flying in long-distance gas balloon races is an escape from the office – from normal life. Christian Wagner just completed his third Gordon Bennett, making it into the top 10. He comes from a ballooning, flying, and skydiving family, and says the fascination of ballooning to him is the peacefulness. Of participating in the Gordon Bennett, Wagner wrote that it means to him, “spending some special time with his father.”
- Cheri White and Mark Sullivan, USA: Albuquerque’s Mark Sullivan is the iron man of distance gas ballooning, having flown more races than any competitor in history. He just completed his 23rd Coupe Gordon Bennett and is slated to complete his 21st America’s Challenge. Sullivan has teamed with Cheri White, from the Austin, TX area, since 2002. This formidable team 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 the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. 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, and is the President of the Balloon Federation of America.
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