ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – In the ballooning community, it is the most prestigious competition in the world. Now, two local pilots are competing in the 2023 Gordon Bennett Long Distance Gas Balloon Championship which starts on the first day of fiesta.
For 33 years, Barbara Fricke and Peter Cueno have taken flight. Each flight is a technical feat full of excitement. “It’s a combination of freedom with a lack of control as compared to flying an airplane,” said Cueno.
With all those years in the sky, it’s on wonder they have excelled in several high-altitude flight competitions like the America’s Challenge and the championship race, the Coupe Aeronoutique Gordon Bennett.
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Since its inception in 1906 in Paris, the Gordon Bennett has become the most prestigious gas balloon competition in the world having survived years-long gaps including during both World Wars and a missed year because of COVID-19.
Now, for the first time since 2008, the competition is back in Albuquerque with 18 teams competing for the title of world champion. With no true finish line, the goal is to be the last balloon flying the furthest distance away. “So I would say whereas there’s concentration required, both flying a hot air balloon and a gas balloon, the gasoline flights require much longer endurance, concentration, more stamina, and more unknowns,” said Cueno.
“Distance is the winner. Not how long you’re in the sky or anything. It’s distance from takeoff spot. Yes, we get competitive. We’re checking. After a day, you’re checking to see who’s left in the sky, where they’re at, where they’re going,” said balloon pilot Barbara Fricke.
The competition will take days to complete with thousands of miles covered. “It can get cold overnight, it can get down into the teens. You’re on oxygen. If you’re above about 12,000 feet MSL, you’re communicating with air traffic control, you got your transponder going so they can see where you are,” said Cueno.
On the ground, a crew will follow and guide pilots with forecasts for winds and where they are headed. During those days at 12,000 feet in the air, pilots like Fricke and Ceuno will rely on the supplies they brought with them like radios, maps, and other aeronautical instruments along with food and water. They will also bring a cot that folds out to six feet long and yes, a bucket to use the bathroom. “I like flying long distance and long time. So I really like it. And it’s getting harder as we’re getting older. But we’re doing it one more time,” said Fricke.
This is their ninth Gordon Bennett competition and Fricke and Cueno said next year isn’t out of the picture yet. However, they hope to see younger pilots continue the tradition and soar just as high as they do. “It’s really, it’s great. And for me, a little bit, the unknown of exactly where you’re gonna land is always part of the fun,” said Fricke.
This is only the 13th time the event has been hosted in the United States. This is the fifth time it will take place at Balloon Fiesta. For those interested, you can track the Gordon Bennett competition on Balloon Fiesta’s main website.