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American Balloonists Still Missing

Underwater Robot now Searching Adriatic Sea

American balloonists Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis

October 3, 2010 — The search for American balloonists Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis, teammatesin the 2010 Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, has moved underwater as a robot is now searching the depths of the Adriatic Sea. The last contact with the balloonists was recorded early on September 29, but since then only small bits of debris have been found.  Preliminary examination of transponder information from a Croatian radar facility suggests that the American Balloon started a moderate decent, then plunged at up to 50 miles per hour toward the water. Race organizers on Friday (October 1) said that if the conclusions from the tapes are correct, then the rapid descent during rough weather conditions made survival “unlikely.”

"It is the opinion of the Gordon Bennett 2010 Flight Control Team that the balloon appears to have suffered a sudden and unexpected failure," said a statement from the race organizers. "The cause of this tragedy is still being examined."

Thunderstorms existed in the area when contact was lost and Italian Coast Guard spokesperson Massimo Macheroni said three possible scenarios are being examined: Lightning struck the balloon and it exploded; the balloon suffered a failure and went down quickly into the ocean; or the balloon dropped slowly, making survivability more likely.

“We recognize that we are looking for a needle in a haystack, but we cannot rest until we find something, anything.” Nancy Abruzzo, wife of Richard Abruzzo said in a statement published on the Gordon Bennett website. “At this point we have not found any physical evidence from the balloon, the gondola, equipment, or personal effects. Coast Guard officials agree that there are more questions that need to be answered and will not rest until we know more. Continue to pray!”

The race’s flight control center lost contact with the balloon--one of 20 competing in the race that began on Saturday morning, September 25, in Bristol, England--on Wednesday morning as it flew over the Adriatic Sea. Race officials expressed concern as it had entered into an area of poor weather and thunderstorms, according to the Gordon Bennett website.

Late Thursday, the BBC reported that Rob Bayly, a member of the Abruzzo-Davis retrieve crew, described two possible scenarios: “The good news story is that they managed a rather desperate water landing, ejected from the balloon, and are in a life raft somewhere, yet to be found, and the balloon took off without them with their beacon still on board, therefore not yet triggered,” he told the BBC.

“The other very pessimistic scenario is a catastrophic explosion in the air where they were caught in the thunder storms, very, very, violent updraughts and downdraughts, and of course lightning itself could have struck the balloon which, at many thousands of feet, could have been completely destroyed.”

The last signal was received from the balloon’s tracker device at 05:58 UTC on September 29, Race Director Don Cameron said in a statement. The last voice contact occurred about seven minutes later. The balloon is equipped with satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder, and two mobile telephones but all efforts to contact the pilots have been unsuccessful, Cameron said.

The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race - Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett—is touted as the oldest and most prestigious aeronautical race in the world. The first one took place in Paris in 1906. Abruzzo and Rymer-Davis are highly experienced balloonists and won the Bennett Cup together in 2004. Abruzzo’s father, Ben, became the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a helium-filled balloon in 1978.

For the latest updates, visit the Gordon Bennett Balloon Race website.

EAA Radio Richard Abruzzo talks helium balloons at AirVenture 2002

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