Race of Champions: 23rd America's Challenge Has Something for Everybody
September 8, 2019
After a one-year hiatus, the America’s Challenge distance race for gas balloons returns to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with its largest field in this decade. Nine teams – veterans and newcomers are scheduled to take flight – weather permitting -- at approximately 6 PM on Saturday, October 5 from Balloon Fiesta Park. They’ll embark on a journey across America that is both scenic and demanding, one of the great challenges of skill and stamina in aviation.
While several of the teams are flying in their first America’s Challenge, you can hardly call them “rookies.” This is especially true of nine-time distance gas ballooning world champion Vincent Leys of France, who holds the record for the most wins in the world’s oldest air race, the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett. Leys will be flying with French young gun Eric Decellieres. Another race rookie, Al Nels of the US, has twice won both the world and U.S. national hot air balloon championships, and is partnered with Andy Baird, the President of Cameron Balloons US. Baird and Nels recently finished 6th and 13th in the U.S. Nationals.
The newcomers will challenge some of the America’s Challenge’s toughest champions, including four-time America’s Challenge winners Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo and two-time victors Cheri White and Mark Sullivan. But no one may be hungrier for victory this year than Poland’s Krzysztof Zapart – runner-up in the last three America’s Challenges – and his American flying partner, two-time America’s Challenge winner Andy Cayton. Zapart and Cayton’s 2017 effort would have won the America’s Challenge race in any other year, but they fell just short of beating Switzerland’s Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz. (However, Zapart set a new Polish national gas balloon distance record.)
The other veterans in the field are veteran U.S. competitors Noah Forden and Bert Padelt, and France’s Benoit Pelard and Benoit Peterle (who set a French national distance record in the 2017 America’s Challenge). Austria’s Christian Wagner is competing in his first America’s Challenge, but his co-pilot, Thomas Lewetz, is returning to Albuquerque after a 24-year absence; he participated in the very first America’s Challenge in 1995. The American newcomers are Brian Duncan and Brenda Cowlishaw, who started gas ballooning a couple of years ago.
The object of the race is to fly the greatest distance from Albuquerque while competing within the event rules. The teams often stay aloft for two to three days and must use the winds and weather systems to their best advantage to gain the greatest distance. Flights of more than 1,000 miles are not unusual, and – as happened in 2017 -- the winners sometimes travel as far as Canada and the U.S. East Coast.
The America’s Challenge is one of the world’s two great gas balloon distance competitions; the other is the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, the World Championships of distance gas ballooning, which this year launches from Pays de Montbéliard, France. Several of the America’s Challenge pilots – including Decelleries, Leӱs, Cayton, Zapart, Wagner, Lewetz, Sullivan, and White – aree also scheduled to participate in this year’s Gordon Bennett.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta’s America’s Challenge Web site, www.balloonfiesta.com/Americas-Challenge, and the Balloon Fiesta app for Android and iPhones, will feature live satellite-based tracking of all the balloons’ positions and race updates throughout the competition. This year the America’s Challenge is adopting a new tracking system that will provide additional capabilities for those following the race online, including multiple map overlays and altitude data.
Categories: AC 2019