No one knew exactly what might happen when the balloons arrived in Bangor 30 years ago. But when the conditions were right, five 90-foot nylon balloons filled with helium gas, with five gondolas attached to them each containing a two-man team, would take off from Bass Park, in the first-ever trans-oceanic balloon race.
The Chrysler Transatlantic Challenge, which took off from Bass Park on Sept. 16, 1992, was a race across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe, with the win going to the team that crossed the first paved road in Europe. If no one actually made it to that end point for whatever reason, the winner would then be the one that stayed aloft the longest. It was an unprecedented race that carried with it a great deal of risk and expense.
“Nothing of this caliber had ever happened in the history of ballooning at that time, and it really hasn’t happened since,” said Troy Bradley, now 58, who with Richard Abruzzo was part of the U.S. team. “It remains one of the high points of my career.”
Race organizers Don Cameron (who also participated in the race) and Alan Noble chose Bangor for the start of the race because of its favorable geographic position to catch late-summer winds that would propel the balloons eastward toward Europe. There were five two-man teams in total, from the U.S., the U.K., Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Though the balloons and their pilots arrived in Bangor on Aug. 16, 1992, weather conditions kept precluding a safe liftoff. The 10 balloonists and their on-the-ground crew spent nearly a month in Bangor, watching the skies and being entertained by the locals. Recreational flights in smaller versions of their race balloons were regularly taken around the area. The balloonists spoke with area schoolchildren, and even participated in a softball game against Husson College’s baseball team.
The five teams had to be ready at nearly a moment’s notice to take off, however, and when conditions were deemed just right late in the evening on Sept. 15, the balloons were filled with helium gas, and at 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, they finally took off, bound for Europe.
“It was all just tremendously exciting. I was nervous, of course, but so excited,” Bradley said. “And you have to remember, back then, this had never been done before. We were operating with technology that was far less advanced than what we have today. We were one of the first balloon flights to really use GPS. When I crossed the Pacific in a balloon in 2015, I could text my wife on my iPhone.”
For the first 36 hours, the Americans led the pack, making it around 500 miles from Bangor, about 160 miles due south of Nova Scotia. On that first day, the weather was so warm that Bradley and Abruzzo said they sunbathed atop their gondola.
By day three, the Belgians had quickly moved into first place, and average top speeds for all five balloons had increased from around 15 mph to nearly 30. By 3 p.m. on Sept. 18, the Belgians were more than 1,000 miles from Bangor, and 250 miles south of Newfoundland.
The German team dropped out of the race on Sept. 19 after encountering a storm; the two men were picked up by an oil tanker. On Sept. 21, the Belgians won the race, after they landed in the village of Peque in northern Spain, after 115 hours aloft. Not long after that, the Dutch team dropped out after running into bad weather off the coast of England.
The British team of Don Cameron and Rob Bayly finished second when they landed in Portugal later in the day on Sept. 21, after 128 hours aloft. Bradley and Abruzzo, the Americans, came in third, landing just after 3 a.m. on Sept. 22, just east of Casablanca, Morocco, after 145 hours aloft. It was the first-ever balloon flight from the U.S. to Africa, and the pair set a world endurance record for number of hours aloft that would not be broken for five years. The previous world endurance record was held by Abruzzo’s father, Ben.
Despite the technological advances and their world records and other world records having been broken many times over in the ensuing three decades, Bradley said, the experience of distance balloon flights remains exactly the same.
“You’re still out there, battling the elements. You’re still up against various winds and various altitudes,” Bradley said. “It’s still as thrilling and the same kind of experience now as it was back then. I feel incredibly fortunate that it’s been my career all these years.”
Bradley, a lifelong resident of New Mexico, has since gone on to a legendary career as a balloonist, having accomplished everything from breaking a world distance record flying a gas balloon across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico in 2015, to flying over 4,000 feet sitting on a carbon fiber La-Z-Boy chair with 70 helium balloons attached, as part of the promotion for the Pixar movie “Up.” He has amassed 64 world records in hot air, gas, and hybrid balloons. In 2016, he was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame.
Bradley is now chief pilot for Rainbow Ryders, the largest hot air balloon business in the country, which operates public and private flights in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado for more than 40,000 passengers per year.
Abruzzo died tragically in September 2010, after being lost at sea while competing in the Gordon Bennett Cup, another balloon race. His body and the body of his racing partner, Carol Rymer Davis, were both found in the Adriatic Sea in December of that year.
Race organizers Cameron and Noble had hoped to make the Trans-Atlantic Challenge an annual or biennial event, but after the initial 1992 run, the race never happened again. Bradley had hoped to help organize a reunion in Maine for the 25th anniversary, but that didn’t materialize either. He said he hadn’t been back to Maine since the race in 1992, but that he hoped to come visit with his wife and two kids.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be in lots of races and events over the years, but the Trans-Atlantic Challenge will always hold a special place in my heart, as will Maine and Bangor, and Morocco, where we landed,” Bradley said. “It was just an incredible experience.”