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Ken Oltjenbruns pops balloon mystery PDF Print E-mail
Written by Darci Tomky   

It didn’t get quite as much attention as “Balloon Boy,” but a balloon flying across the skies of northeast Colorado did turn some heads when it was spotted around Holyoke a month ago. The Holyoke Enterprise printed a picture of the unidentified balloon in the Oct. 6 edition, and thanks to Ken Oltjenbruns, the great mystery has been solved!

Not to be confused with a hot air balloon, this was actually a helium-inflated gas balloon.

Having seen the balloon from a distance, Oltjenbruns could tell it wasn’t a standard hot air balloon and figured it was probably a gas balloon. After a little research, he discovered it was competing in America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race that beautiful October afternoon.

This balloon was spotted northeast of Holyoke Monday, Oct. 3. Ken Oltjenbruns helped
solve the mystery by identifying it as a helium-inflated gas balloon competing in
America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race. The Lady Britannia flew nearly 1,000 miles in
over 71.5 hours from New Mexico to North Dakota for a first-place win in the annual race.  
—Enterprise photo

Since 1995, gas balloons have been racing in America’s Challenge as part of the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. The rules are pretty simple—the balloon that flies the longest distance wins.

Oltjenbruns was pleased to announce the balloon that flew over Holyoke claimed first-place honors for the 2011 America’s Challenge. Britain’s David Hempleman-Adams and co-pilot Jonathan Mason, who now resides in Australia, had much to celebrate after flying 974 miles in an America’s Challenge record-setting duration of 71 hours and 31 minutes.

Their journey on the Lady Britannia took them from their launch in Albuquerque, N.M. almost to the Canadian border, 65 miles northwest of Minot, N.D. They made a safe—but fast—landing at 35 knots.

The second-place team of Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke of the United States—who actually flew over Haxtun—pushed the winners almost every step of the way, landing Foxtrot Charlie near Velva, N.D. after traveling nearly 930 miles.

Of the eight teams that competed, the 16 pilots and co-pilots represented six countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race has been modeled after the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett, the premier gas balloon distance race with a history of almost 100 years.

A Belgium team holds the 2005 Gordon Bennett distance record at 2,112.9 miles. A 1995 team set the duration record at an amazing 92 hours and 11 minutes.

Starting launch locations for the Gordon Bennett vary every year, and each country is allowed to enter their three best teams.

Oltjenbruns has had extensive experience helping crew regular hot air balloons, traveling as far as France to participate in this high-flying hobby. He’s even helped with a gas balloon race, ironically, in Albuquerque. That city hosted the Gordon Bennett competition in the mid-1990s, and Oltjenbruns was lucky enough to get on one of the inflation crews.

“It’s quite an involved procedure,” he said. “It’s a major undertaking.”

Gas balloons are inflated through a tube, called an appendix, in a long process that takes several hours.

Oltjenbruns said each balloonist brings in truckloads of helium to inflate their balloons. With an investment of both the balloon and the helium, gas balloon flying becomes quite an expensive hobby.

“Because it’s an expensive sport, they take a lot of care,” said Oltjenbruns. “It’s a very carefully-orchestrated inflation process.”

In the United States, most competitors use helium gas because it isn’t flammable like hydrogen and it’s readily available in America. Many pilots in Europe use hydrogen because it is cheaper and easier to get.

In both hot air balloons and gas balloons, the area that holds the hot air or gas is called the envelope, and the gondola (or basket) is the part that carries passengers.

Hot air balloons fly because hot air rises. Since the air inside the envelope is hotter than the air outside, enough hot air will gently lift the balloon into the sky. The ascent is controlled by the pilot who can heat more air with burners, allowing the balloon to rise. To descend, air is released.

Hot air balloonists like to fly in winds less than 12 miles per hour and particularly in the morning when temperatures are cooler. They usually fly short distances for about an hour or so.

Gas balloons, on the other hand, are just like those birthday balloons seen in the flower shop—just much, much bigger. Helium and hydrogen are both lifting gases because they are less dense and lighter than air.

Oltjenbruns explained hot temperatures in the daytime will cause the gas in the envelope to heat and expand, causing the balloon to rise. At night, the balloon loses altitude due to cooler temperatures. Pilots can also descend by venting gas through the top of the envelope. The appendix at the bottom of the balloon stays open during flight to keep the balloon from bursting.

It’s a race against time for pilots in competitions like America’s Challenge and Gordon Bennett. The balloons generally have enough helium to fly for two or three days.

Gas balloons can usually fly for three cycles of heating up (rising) in the day and cooling off (dropping) at night. To keep from falling too low at night, the pilots must drop ballast, which is typically sandbags or water. When all the ballast is gone, they are forced to land.

It’s key for gas balloon pilots to take advantage of various wind currents at different altitudes. Strategy is based on weather conditions, as well as the mental and physical endurance of the pilot and co-pilot.

Of course, pilots must pack light for their three-day journey. They use an altimeter to measure altitude, a variometer for the rate of climb, a transponder so flight control centers can monitor the balloon and a barograph to record flight duration and altitude.

GPS gives information about the balloon’s exact location, and aircraft radio lets pilots communicate with their ground crew.

Other essentials include survival gear for emergency landings (but not parachutes), easy-to-eat food, warm clothes, maps, passports and a Porta Potty-type bathroom device.

In races like America’s Challenge, GPS makes it possible for each balloon’s location and status to be reported on a map on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta website. That’s how Oltjenbruns could confirm which balloon flew over Holyoke.

The history of ballooning began in France in 1783. The first public hot air balloon flight carried a duck, a rooster and a sheep after papermakers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier happened upon the principle of hot air flight. Hot air balloons are still called Montgolfier after the inventors.

Gas balloons are called Charliere-type in honor of their developer, French physicist Jacques A.C. Charles. He discovered that gases lighter than air could make balloons rise after fabric was made air-tight by rubberizing it. It took three days to fill the balloon with hydrogen, but Charles’ experimental gas balloon got off the ground.

Shortly after ballooning was invented, the first manned hot air balloon flight took place Nov. 21, 1783. Charles flew his gas balloon just 10 days later. This unique hobby really took off from there, spreading across the globe.

For more information on gas balloons, the 2011 America’s Challenge race or the Gordon Bennett competition, visit

Did You Know?

Gas balloons have come a long way since their invention in 1783. Here are some interesting gas ballooning milestones from

1783—Balloon fever covers the globe, and most balloons use gas.

1785—Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries cross the English Channel. The world’s first balloonist, de Rozier, dies in his experimental aircraft made by combining a hydrogen balloon with a hot-air balloon. However, this basic design, called a Rozier-type balloon, is still used for some extreme long-distance ballooning.

1793—U.S. President George Washington observes the first North American balloon flight.

1794-1945—Balloons are used through the U.S. Civil War and both World Wars for spying and communication.

Mid-1860s-1960s—Gas balloons dominate the hot-air balloon until a modern burner is developed to heat air.

1932—Auguste Piccard of Switzerland flies into the stratosphere in the first use of a pressurized capsule. Climbing to an altitude of 52,498 feet, he sets an altitude record.

1935—A helium gas balloon sets an altitude record of 72,395 feet, or 13.7 miles, with two people on board. The flight proves that people can survive in pressurized cabins at very high altitudes and opens the door to space travel.

1960—A record for the highest parachute jump is set by Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who jumps from his balloon at 102,800 feet, breaking the sound barrier with his body.

1961—U.S. Navy fliers Malcolm Ross and Victor A. Prather ascend to 113,739.9 feet. They land in the Gulf of Mexico, where Prather drowns due to a malfunction of his pressure suit.

1978—First balloon to succeed in crossing the Atlantic, the Double Eagle II, carries Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. They also set a duration record by flying 137 hours.

1981—First Pacific balloon crossing accomplished in the Double Eagle V, carrying Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki of Japan. They launched from Nagashimi, Japan and landed 84 hours, 31 minutes later in Mendocino National Forest in California, setting a new distance record of 5,768 miles.

1984—Joe Kittinger makes the first solo trans-Atlantic balloon flight, crossing 3,535 miles from Maine to Italy in his helium balloon.

1992—Richard Abruzzo, son of Ben Abruzzo, and Troy Bradley set an absolute world duration record. They flew from Bangor, Maine, to Morocco in the combination-type gas and hot-air balloon called a de Rozier.

1995—Steve Fossett makes the first solo trans-Pacific flight, flying for four days from Seoul, Korea to Mendham, Saskatchewan.

2005—Bob Berben and Benoit Simeons of Belgium travel 2,112 miles from Albuquerque, N.M. to southeastern Quebec Province in Canada, setting the new record for farthest distance traveled. They were able to break the old record by 751 miles.

Holyoke Enterprise November 3, 2011