Pilots, friends mourn 2 big names in balloon-racing, tribute planned at annual fiesta

By Susan Montoya Bryan, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

American pilots missed by fellow balloonists

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They were two of the biggest names in balloon-racing — hall of famers, world record holders and winners of some of the sport’s most prestigious awards.

The apparent deaths of veteran pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis during a European gas balloon race has rocked the sport and cast a pall over a major balloon fiesta happening this week in New Mexico.

There has been sobbing, teary eyes, hugs and the sharing of stories among those at the fiesta who knew Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, and Davis, 65, of Denver. The event draws hundreds of pilots and more than 800,000 spectators to Albuquerque each year.

“These are people who lived life every minute. They had a passion for life and lived it fully. We want everybody else to do that too,” said Kim Vesely, an Albuquerque pilot who remembers her first flight with Davis at a 1978 balloon rally in snow-covered northern New Mexico.

Abruzzo and Davis were flying in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Sept. 29 over the Adriatic Sea. Race organizers said radar indicated the two plunged toward the water at 50 mph (80 kph) and they likely didn’t survive.

Search and rescue teams with the Italian coast guard, the U.S. Navy and Croatian coastal aircraft crews spent five days scouring the sea. There has been no sign of the pilots or debris from their balloon, leaving some to speculate that the two could still be alive, waiting for help on an island.

But Kevin Knapp, a friend of the pair and deputy director of the America’s Challenge gas balloon race, acknowledged that hope has faded.

“Something happened between that last transmission that says they were in a rapid descent and were trying to handle what was going on. It was a catastrophic situation because we don’t have any debris,” he said. “My thoughts are they didn’t suffer.”

Abruzzo and Davis were a huge deal in the sport.

The two biggest events in gas balloon racing are the Gordon Bennett and the America’s Challenge, and Abruzzo and Davis dominated the competitions.

They won the 2003 America’s Challenge — one of Abruzzo’s five victories in that race. They won the 2004 Gordon Bennett in France.

In both events, the team that travels the longest distance wins. To achieve victory, pilots must astutely take advantage of wind currents and fluctuation in temperatures to get the most distance out of their balloons, encountering a series of hazards along the way.

Abruzzo shattered his forearm and broke his pelvis in the 2005 Gordon Bennett when the Abruzzo-Davis balloon struck a power line in Kansas, and he tumbled from the gondola from about 25 feet. Davis landed the balloon and was not hurt.

Their race successes put them in the record books on several occasions.

In 2001, Richard Abruzzo set a world record by spending about 80 hours aloft in a gas balloon. Two years later, Abruzzo became the first person to fly solo across the continent in a helium balloon. His 73-hour, 20-minute trip covered 2,079 miles.

Davis was inducted into the balloon fiesta’s Balloon Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year she was recognized with a national award for outstanding performance by a woman in any form of aviation. She set altitude, distance and duration records for hot air balloons.

Abruzzo’s father, Ben, was part of a team of three Albuquerque men who made the first successful balloon flight over the Atlantic in 1978, landing their helium-filled balloon in France after a flight of 137 hours. He also was part of the four-man team who became the first to cross the Pacific Ocean in a balloon in late 1981.

The younger Abruzzo and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson were entered in this year’s America’s Challenge race, which is slated to lift off Thursday night during the fiesta in New Mexico. Abruzzo and Johnson won the America’s Challenge in 2002 and 2004.

The race was initially scheduled for Tuesday, but concerns about rough weather have twice delayed the start.

In honor of Abruzzo and Davis, America’s Challenge organizers have planned a special tribute before the launch. White helium balloons will be released and each of the six participating balloons will carry a pair of chile ristras — one for Abruzzo and one with a pink ribbon for Davis. The strings of red chile are popular throughout New Mexico.

“We’re going to send our thoughts and prayers aloft,” Knapp said.

Knapp, who served as a Green Beret for 15 years, has been putting on a brave face for those at the fiesta. But on Tuesday, he couldn’t help but break down. He realizes he has lost two special friends.

“We’ve got those memories of the times we’ve spent together, the times we’ve flown together, the times we’ve shared balloon stories together. They’ll always be with us,” he said of Abruzzo and Davis.

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