After premature landing balloonists ponder whether to try again

3 weeks ago

After more than a year of planning, the crew aboard the Torabhaig Atlantic Explorer balloon launched from Presque Isle on June 28 but found their longed-for journey to Europe cut short when weather forced a premature landing in New Brunswick, Canada.

Now the team expects to evaluate all aspects of the flight, but deciding whether or not to make another attempt is a slow process, pilot and balloon builder Bert Padelt said Monday.

The crew chose Presque Isle because of its northern location, but also for its ballooning history. They wanted to honor the Double Eagle II, which launched from the city in 1978 and became the world’s first hot-air balloon to make a transatlantic flight. The Torabhaig Explorer was to be the first open-basket hydrogen balloon to cross the Atlantic into Europe. 

The short flight was disappointing, but it’s too soon to say if they’ll try again, Padelt said, just hours after returning home to Pennsylvania.

“It’s a tough question,” he said. “The decision doesn’t come right away, will you do it again. It’s a process. I’m sure David and I will go over this and make a decision down the road.”

The crew consisted of Padelt, who built the balloon, fellow pilot Sir David Hempleman-Adams of the United Kingdom and Swiss scientist and explorer Frederik Paulsen. The quest was sponsored by the Torabhaig (pronounced TOR-a-vague) Distillery on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, which Paulsen’s daughter owns. 

The crew originally intended to launch last September, but weather conditions proved unstable. 

Whereas a hot-air balloon is filled with air heated by a propane burner, the hydrogen version is filled with the gas, then sealed, Padelt explained last year. Flight is controlled by the heat of the sun and removal of ballast, or sandbags. 

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — June 28, 2024 — The Torabhaig Atlantic Explorer stands tall against a darkening sky before three international pilots boarded the balloon for the first trans-Atlantic flight in a hydrogen-powered balloon. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

The balloon carried 160 sandbags, each weighing 30 pounds, for a ballast of 4,800 pounds. 

The Explorer is the best balloon he’s ever built, Padelt said Monday, adding that everyone on the team did a superb job. The balloon flew well and suffered no damage.  The decision to land while they were still over dry land was purely a weather and safety matter.

They had planned to start out at 6,000 feet, he said, climbing each day of their anticipated five-day journey. But weather models changed, and their meteorologist directed them to rise higher three times during their six hours in the air. That meant dropping more sandbags than planned.

They might well have had enough ballast to land in Europe, but if they had to alter their position too many more times they’d have cut things too close, he said. Ultimately, they had three minutes to make a decision: carry on or land safely.

“Did we go out over the water, thinking we may have just enough ballast?” he said. “At that point, it just didn’t feel right, and so we made the decision to land while we still had New Brunswick under us.”

They came down on a dirt road at Christies Landing, located roughly 25 miles southeast of Bathurst in eastern New Brunswick.

When news came that they’d have to ditch more ballast early in the flight, it was concerning, said Hempleman-Adams in an online flight diary. He has been involved with several Atlantic flights and none of them have been as well organized, he wrote. 

“The duration of a flight depends on the amount of ballast you have remaining, and it is important to conserve ballast as much as possible, but particularly early in a flight,” he wrote. “None, on take off, had such a good forecast on take-off, and on not one did the forecast become so unstable and change so quickly. The weather has been so cruel.”

The balloonists left Aroostook on Monday, but their supporters hope the dream isn’t over. 

“All the support people are pushing him to go again,” said Paul Cyr of Presque Isle, who worked with the team and offered his land for the launch. “All the planning, the logistics [and] everything has been done.”

Excitement was high at the launch, but the weather was just beyond control, Cyr said. Lack of sun on Saturday failed to heat the hydrogen enough for the balloon to rise without dropping ballast, so the team decided to land.

Though their emotions are obviously reeling and their next steps are undecided right now, he wouldn’t be surprised if they make another attempt, Cyr said.

Whatever next steps there are, Padelt is still thrilled with the experience and remains awed by the local community’s support for the Torabhaig Explorer.

Many of them shared their memories of watching the Double Eagle II launch and even thanked him for giving their grandchildren something similar to remember, he said. When he looked out Friday and saw all the people gathered for the launch, he was so moved he left the basket and went over to thank them.

As a balloon builder, planner and pilot, he’s participated in many projects over the years, including for the late balloonist Steve Fossett, who was the first to complete a solo transatlantic hot-air balloon flight. But achieving his own journey is something he’s dreamed about for years. 

For him, those six hours in the air were more than worth all the work and anticipation.

“Having this opportunity was a wonderful one and a half years of planning and putting together,” he said. “The six hours in that basket that night were the happiest moments in my whole life.”