Still hope for missing balloonists

2010-10-01 15:42

New Mexico - On the eve of a major world balloon festival came word that two of the sport's most acclaimed pilots were missing in a European race, leaving friends and colleagues in the tight-knit community fearful but holding out hope that they would turn up safe.

Veteran pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost on Wednesday morning over the Adriatic Sea.

Since then, search and rescue teams with 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.

The search was continuing on Friday, but pilots gathered at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta acknowledged the mood was sombre.

"It's very disheartening," said Rick Squires, an Albuquerque pilot who knows Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, and Davis, 65, of Denver. It was Davis' husband who accompanied Squires on his pilot check ride nearly 20 years ago.

"You can't put into words what these people mean to the ballooning community here in Albuquerque, nationwide and worldwide. They're at the top," Squires said before heading to the balloon fiesta park to register for this year's event.

Family tradition

Inside the registration tent was a long row of cardboard boxes holding the pilots' packets. At the front was a box with Abruzzo's name affixed to it.

Event director Don Edwards said he hopes Abruzzo will return and pick up that packet.

"My glass is half full," Edwards said. "Richard was in my office just two days before he left to go over there. We were saying good luck, hope you win and see you back here next week."

The Abruzzo name is synonymous with ballooning. Abruzzo is the son of famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who was in 1981 part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon, and who was killed in a small airplane crash in 1985.

The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum is named partly for the elder Abruzzo and the younger has plenty of records and wins under his own belt.

In 2001, he set a world record by spending about 80 hours aloft in a straight gas balloon, breaking his father's record of 75 hours and 10 minutes, set in 1980. Two years later, he became the first person to fly solo across the continent in a helium balloon.

His 73-hour, 20-minute trip covered 3 346km.

Davis was inducted into the balloon fiesta's Balloon Hall of Fame in 2005.

'Fierce friends and competition'

The pair won the 2004 edition of the Gordon Bennett race and the 2003 America's Challenge gas race - one of Abruzzo's five victories in that race.

Abruzzo and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson are entered in the 2010 America's Challenge race, which is slated to lift off on Tuesday during the annual fiesta, which attracts hundreds of balloonists and hundreds of thousands of spectators to New Mexico each fall. Abruzzo and Johnson won the America's Challenge in 2002 and 2004.

Organisers of the America's Challenge and those putting on the fiesta say Abruzzo and Davis would want the race to go on.

"I know that Richard and Carol love the sport of ballooning," said fiesta spokesperson Kathie Leyendecker.

"They are huge in the community. They're the best ombudsmen of the sport. They're fierce competition, fierce friends, incredibly well trained and they do it better than anybody. It's part of their life."

Risks to a safe sport

Richard Abruzzo, the youngest of three brothers, followed his father into ballooning.

"They were always testing their limits, testing their balloons, testing their skills. They were as finely honed as they could be," Leyendecker said of the earlier generation of balloonists, "and I think with Richard that's in his DNA."

Ray Bair, who sits on the fiesta's board of directors with Abruzzo, said even experienced pilots like himself have good reason to look up to Abruzzo and Davis.

"To me, what they represent is an opportunity to live vicariously through their adventures," he said.

With the balloonists still missing, their friends at the fiesta are left only to speculate about what happened over the Adriatic Sea.

Pilots and others said their disappearance is a reminder of the risks that come with ballooning.

"It definitely gives you a little bit more of a reality check," Edwards said. "It's a very safe sport, but there are risks and consequences."