US balloonists 'fell at 80km/h'

2010-10-02 11:04

Bari, Italy - Two missing American balloonists plunged toward the Adriatic Sea at 80kph and likely didn't survive, race organisers said.

Flight director Don Cameron said on Friday that high rate of descent, if confirmed, leads him to be "very pessimistic" about the fate of veteran pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis.

Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Davis, 65, of Denver, Colorado, were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Wednesday morning in rough weather over the Adriatic Sea.

Race organisers said the balloon "appears to have suffered a sudden and unexpected failure."

"It's very bad news," Cameron said.

Air traffic control

Cameron said he received information Friday from Zagreb's air traffic control indicating the balloon was at 5,300 feet (1 615 metres) and descended slowly at first but then at a rate of 50mph until 600 feet (180 metres).

"At this rate of descent to the surface, survival would be unlikely," the race organisers said in a statement.

Cameron stressed that the Croatian readings were from the outer limits of its radar zone, though, and said he hoped they were incorrect.

"It's the only shred of hope," he said, adding that he expects to confirm the data with Italian air traffic controllers in Brindisi, on the other side of the Adriatic, on Saturday.

The Italian coast guard, the US Navy and Croatian coastal aircraft crews have been scouring the area around Croatia's distant, uninhabited islet of Palagruza.