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Mercedes ML races a gas balloon

  1. For most, ballooning probably suggests kaleidoscopic patchworks drifting lazily over the cosy English countryside. Or something that Branson bloke was involved with. Something gentle, picturesque, calm.

    But we’re here at the 2011 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, and while the path to glory is disarmingly simple - the winner is the balloon that can fly the furthest distance from Albuquerque, New Mexico - the execution is somewhat more intense. And potentially lethal.

    Words: Adam Towler
    Photography: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the December 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Gas balloons, the ones we’re here to see, are much more serious than their hot-air cousins, flying far higher and for much longer. Filled with either hydrogen or helium, altitude is gained not by using a burner, but by progressively dumping ballast - often sand - or lost by venting off the gas.

    This also acts as a balloonist’s steering mechanism, because wind direction and strength varies at differing altitudes. And they fly fast (up to 70mph) and high (up to 20,000 feet), with a potential intercontinental range only limited by the life of the gas within the ‘envelope’ and the amount of ballast left aboard.

  3. Luckily, we’re involved with a bit of a legend and a man used to the challenges of such indistinct control surfaces. Brit David Hempleman-Adams, OBE, is a man with a comprehensive curriculum vitae of Very Cool Stuff.

    Adventurer, solo explorer, record-breaker, he’s the first man to complete the adventurers’ grand slam, successfully reaching both magnetic and geographic poles in the North and South Arctic, plus climbing the major peaks across all seven continents. Tall, impossibly broad-shouldered and with hands suitably sized for swatting aside a disgruntled polar bear, when he’s not leading expeditions up Everest, he’s airborne - as in flying a small balloon across the Atlantic. Alone.

  4. A paltry distance challenge in the warm bits of the USA should be a walk in the park, then. A mere pleasure flight. And, given Team UK’s determinedly low-key approach on the starting field, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the courageous British entrants were plucky but doomed.

    Ok, so, at high altitudes, oxygen is required, dispensed by a zeitgeisty carbon-fibre cylinder, but compared to some of their tech-heavy rivals, DH-A and his co-pilot, Jon Mason, have an informal, and idiosyncratically British shoestring approach.

  5. There is GPS, a sat phone, an airband radio and a transponder, plus a few tins of soup and a stove, water, a couple of warm old coats and the ‘sh*tbox’ - which does exactly what it says on the tin, complete with a large can of air freshener. And that really is it - all contained in a traditional, waist-height wicker basket with a fold-down bench, just big enough for two blokes to stand in.

  6. What they also require is a ground crew and a chase vehicle: someone to track the rig’s movement from Mother Earth, and to rescue the pilots and balloon from whatever terrain they eventually land in.

    This landside crew needs decent navigation skills - cars can’t often run as the crow flies, and balloons don’t keep to national road networks - and the car needs to be able to chomp through serious distance towing a fairly hefty U-Haul trailer, and be rugged enough to get there if the balloon happens to inconveniently land away from tarmac. Which it probably will. In lieu of anyone better, we are the ground crew. Luckily, we come equipped with a new Mercedes Benz M-Class with a 350 CDI diesel. One out of two ain’t bad.

  7. After a delayed start due to adverse weather, the America’s Challenge gets under way on a Saturday evening, with 200,000 people crammed into Albuquerque’s 72-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, their faces lit by the glow from hundreds of more traditional hot-air balloons of every shape, size and colour, all illuminated
    by an internal flame like giant Chinese lanterns.

    Amongst the pageantry, our maverick Brits have been quietly hatching a secret plan: a route schemed by their weather guru that involves staying low and searching out a gap further north in the mountains of the Santa Fe National Park.

  8. Each of the seven other contenders in this more extreme class chooses to fly straight over the mountains: that’s a faster, direct route, but it’ll require more ballast heaved overboard to lift over the peaks, and that may just tell later on in the race.

    Launch itself very nearly ends in immediate and embarrassing low-altitude disaster, as the lads almost crash straight into an inconveniently immobile park fence, but finally they soar off to adventure, and I… wait for a bit to see which way the wind takes them. The next few initial hours prove frustrating, as they struggle overnight and fail to catch the promised low-altitude winds.

  9. By early Sunday morning, progress has been disappointingly slow. Nevertheless, with trailer hitched, it’s time to start our chase in the ML - even if in ‘Champagne Gold’, and with a lounge-lizard combo of beige leather and mahogany wood interior trim, it’s more West Coast retirement home than Wild West rescue wagon.

    We’re not quite the horse-drawn wagons in Westerns with their billowing cloth covers, but as our diesel-fuelled packhorse hits Santa Fe, there’s precious little time to admire the terracotta fortified buildings of this historic town. Colorado beckons, and tracking the balloon via some brief wi-fi snatched from a coffee shop, we point Rescue Merc northwards for Alamosa.

  10. It’s our first taste of the plains, and my eyelids peel back at the length of the road stretching ahead and the majesty of the scenery. The word ‘big’ seems very small. And there’s very little out here: most of the housing is little more than sheds or
    trailers, while the land around these remote settlements is covered in decomposing Chevys and Fords, left to wither naturally.

    Turning right at Alamosa, we cross the Rio Grande, the sun dazzling on the water as the giant diesel locos rumble in their sidings and head for the gap that the balloon has been searching for, climbing the pass in the mountains after Fort Garland.

  11. Towing the trailer, this is where turbos and diesels go together like cowboys and Indians, the Merc’s V6 working hard but effectively, lugging our little rig to the summit and on to the old steel town of Pueblo. It’s only when we check in with Mission Control that we hear the balloon has hit a terrifying downdraft, causing it to plummet hundreds of feet in mere seconds in what must have been a severe test for the sh*tbox.

    Still, three of the eight original entrants have already been forced to land, so although Team UK is currently running last, at least we’re still flying.

  12. Next morning, and ground crew is playing catch-up again - more pounding miles - as we head out into north-eastern Colorado along the Kansas border. It’s difficult to adequately describe the scale, the absence of sound… the sheer emptiness of this landscape alleviated occasionally by desolate towns with ageing grain elevators and abandoned houses.

    There has been no weakness in the armoury of the ML so far, save perhaps the tow bar which clunks around behind us like a freight train running over worn points. And even that feels strangely appropriate. But our spirits are lifted by the sudden sighting of our balloon, a tiny white blob hanging gracefully in the unlimited expanse of blue above.

  13. Sometime later that day, we find The Road, resembling something that as a kid you wanted to make into a Scalextric layout but never had anything like enough sections of track for. This part of Nebraska is all rolling green hills and isolated farms, and, with dusk approaching, looks a bit like the Scottish Highlands but bigger, lonelier and - as the scale of it all hits home - scarier.

    Don’t ever let anyone tell you that driving in America is boring. The M-Class gets pitched into one long, high-speed corner after another, gears selected manually via the paddles. It’s doing an impressive job right at the speed limit, and the absurdity of this road has me giggling dementedly.

  14. At some point, I have one of those slightly disconcerting moments when I realise that the trailer is strangely quiet, too. Presumably by now tumbling end over end across a Nebraskan field. I ease off slightly and risk a look in the rearview mirror while a little voice in my head chants: “There’s still a trailer on the back. PRAY FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE THAT THERE’S STILL A TRAILER ON THE BACK!”

    There’s still a trailer on the back. The ML keeps running like a train, carriage behind thankfully still attached, guilt steadily washing over me.

  15. We keep on keeping on. Mission Control back in Bristol confirms the lads are definitely going to fly through another night. And now there are just two teams left: the Brits and the sole remaining American crew, and, incredibly, there’s only one mile between them. I can’t tell you much about what happens next, simply because entire hours passed in a monotonous stream of black emptiness, lost to the soft drone of the V6 and the gentle whistle of air around the wing mirrors.

    Our progress is punctuated occasionally by the blinding, Cyclops-like headlamp of a freight train heading towards us on the nearby railroad, wagons dimly lit like a giant snake behind it.

  16. It’s 2.30am when we finally switch off in the gloriously fast-sounding Rapid City, South Dakota. Sleep, though deeply inviting, is fleeting, and with the race really hotting up, we’re back on the road at a grisly 4am. The ML is holding up well - frankly, far better than I am by this stage.

    The windscreen has received a major impact from a flying rock, but otherwise it just grinds on behind its spectacularly gooey mask of dead bugs, gaining our respect with every passing mile. Although with the U-Haul bobbing around in the slipstream, fuel consumption is a slightly disturbing 21mpg.

  17. So, this is North Dakota. Another hour, another state, another road stretching out to the horizon devoid of humanity. Past the scene of Custer’s last great Buffalo hunt, and, once again, there’s the thrill of tracking the balloon visually as it drifts silently above. By Bismarck, the tension is so unbearable I want to carve swear words into the mahogany steering wheel.

    And then… and then the American balloon is no longer moving on the tracking website. Has it landed? It could, of course, be a transponder glitch, but the last moments of the trace look very much like a landing… but there’s no time to investigate further, because we’ve got our own worries.

  18. At 8.30pm, the British balloon spears violently into the cloggy soil of a giant field just over a mile south of the US/Canadian border. In its final moments aloft, it has dodged lakes, power lines and giant wind-turbine blades. In other words, drowning, electrical combustion and being cleaved into pieces were off the menu.

    The impact is considerable, and the envelope drags the basket along the ground for over half a mile before coming to a rest in a heap of canvas, wicker and two dehydrated, dishevelled pilots. The flight time of 71 hours and 32 minutes
    is a new record; the distance of 974 miles, extraordinary; the victory, sweet. And, yes, it was victory: the Americans had indeed landed two hours earlier, 46 miles short.

  19. Job not done for us, though. It takes a couple of frantic hours to actually find them in this unrelenting black wilderness, and the ML doesn’t even share in the final glory. The border guards advise that the hods of earth and drainage ditches are too great a challenge, and we use the towering Dodge Ram pickup of a local couple to rescue the chaps and their kit.

    Still, the ML ferries five completely knackered occupants back the 60-something miles to Minot at 2am, and seeing as my eyeballs feel as though they’re about to slide out of my skull, I’m thankful for the Mercedes’s little bubble of ease. Respect is undoubtedly due.

  20. It has been an unforgettable 1,300 miles. A journey up the spine and story of America, the Midwest providing us with humbling vistas, the warmth of a people often battling adversity and poignant moments of a faded American ideal. But even that, however memorable, was nothing compared to the view enjoyed by two brave, triumphant blokes, way up in the endless blue, sitting in a wicker basket.

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