LABRADOR CITY, N.L. — A Swiss gas balloon team rescued from woods near the Quebec-Labrador border after a record-shattering balloon odyssey have started a new journey back to New Mexico — this time in a motor home with a trailer in tow.
Nicolas Tieche and Laurent Sciboz landed in a remote area near Labrador City Tuesday after an epic 3,666-kilometre transcontinental flight from Albuquerque, earning them top spot in the America's Challenge distance balloon race.
To claim their prize, the high-flying duo carefully retrieved their massive white balloon and basket from atop an isolated ridge Thursday and embarked on a 48-hour road trip back to Albuquerque.
The pilots are expected to be greeted with accolades for smashing the previous record of 3,215 kilometres by more than 400 kilometres.
"You get a trophy, bragging rights, a lot of atta-boys and some great memories," said Kim Vesely, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which organizes the annual race and awards banquet.
The second-place gas balloon team, which landed near the Quebec-New Brunswick border, also beat the previous record. Krzysztof Zapart of Poland and Andy Cayton of the U.S. were in the clouds for nearly 70 hours, travelling a distance of 3,523 kilometres.
"The weather was conducive to long flights," Vesely said. "There is a weather highway between two weather systems ... with fairly brisk winds the teams were able to catch."
Eight teams took part in the race, with the top three travelling more than 3,000 kilometres.
Improvements in avionics, meteorology and balloon and basket technology has made gas balloon flying more competitive, with pilots reaching new heights and getting further than ever before, Vesely said.
"They're running out of real estate," she said. "Under race rules you cannot land on water but ... Greenland is not necessarily out of bounds."
Rescue officials in central Labrador were surprised to learn on Tuesday that a gas balloon had drifted to the area from the southern U.S.
"I thought it was a prank. This time of year we're getting a little bit of snow," said Joe Power, fire chief of the Labrador City Fire Rescue. "But it's not like you see a balloon here in the sky even in July."
After confirming the emergency landing of the Swiss balloon team with the race marshal, Power said the fire department worked quickly with the province, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and officials at the nearby Wabush mine to co-ordinate a rescue.
"There are no roads and it's a pretty heavily wooded area," he said. "We decided a helicopter was the best option."
The Swiss team had expected to land in Quebec, but hit a patch of bad weather.
"In between Quebec and Labrador there's a lot of barren land, a lot of hills and water and the weather can change quickly," said Power. "They encountered some snow and some winds as well and ended up off course."
The gas balloon team had planned to land in Fermont or Schefferville in northeastern Quebec but ended up just north of Labrador City.
A ground crew had tracked their nearly 60-hour journey across the United States and Canada and called in the rescue request.
Gas balloons are different from the more familiar hot air balloons in several ways, including flight duration, cost and how much they can carry.
Hot air balloons are generally used for shorter flights and fly as a result of a hotter air temperature inside the envelope, or balloon, than outside.
Gas balloons fly as a result of a lifting gas in their envelope, usually helium or hydrogen.
- By Brett Bundale in Halifax
The Canadian Press