Record-breaking gas balloon ride ends in Labrador woods

A record-breaking gas balloon journey came to an end in the Labrador woods on Tuesday.

Labrador City Fire Rescue received a call from Switzerland that a gas balloon was making an emergency landing in a wooded area just south of Lorraine Lake.

"At first I thought it might have been a prank," said fire chief Joe Power.

"It's not like you see a hot air balloon here, even in July," he told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning. "And almost in the middle of October —  it seemed a bit odd."

But after he got a second call from a marshal of a gas balloon race in New Mexico, he was convinced.

It turns out the balloon was competing in the America's Challenge long-distance gas balloon race, which is held each year as part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's biggest hot air balloon festival.

Power called the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Iron Ore Company of Canada for help. Once they figured they wouldn't be able to reach the balloon or its pilots with a truck or ATV, they sent a helicopter.

This balloon in the Labrador wild was piloted by Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz, of Switzerland. They had taken off from Albuquerque on Saturday evening, and were aloft for nearly 60 hours. The distance they flew — 3,666 kilometres — set a new world record for the greatest distance flown in a gas balloon and earned them a first-place finish.

The Swiss team's 60-hour, 3,666 kilometre journey was 450.5 kilometres longer than the previous record.


"It's very amazing to start in the desert of the New Mexico area and to finish here in Labrador City," Sciboz told the St. John's Morning Show. "We have quite a lot of snow this morning in Labrador City so it was really a huge trip."

Gas balloons are different from hot air balloons; they're spherical in shape and they're powered by helium or hydrogen.

Tièche's and Sciboz's balloon, Fribourg Challenge, runs on hydrogen and soared over nine U.S. states and three Canadian provinces, sometimes at speeds above 100 km/hr.

Beneath the balloon, the pilots fly in a basket that's less than one square metre. They work together, taking sleeping and commanding shifts.

But unfortunately, after all that work, they won't get a prize for breaking the world record.

"Gas ballooning, this is from 1783, this is very old," said Tièche. "It was the ancestor of all airplanes, and there is some kind of gentleman's agreement there are no prizes."

But the bragging rights amongst the 150-strong gas ballooners across the world are pretty sweet.

Not quite aiming for Labrador

Tièche and Sciboz have a team of ten to fifteen people working for them when they're up in the air, mapping their route so they could cover the greatest distance possible.

The team is big because navigating a gas balloon is imprecise art.

"When we started from Albuquerque, at that time it is not possible to say, 'Okay we will go to Labrador City,'" said Tièche's "We know that we will go to the north, probably to Quebec, somewhere within the Quebec [province.]"

But the winds and the snow put them on a ridge close to a mine site about three kilometres south of Lorraine Lake.

Tièche and Sciboz are both in good shape — neither of them were hurt during the landing — and they're tucked into a hotel in Labrador City, still trying to figure out how to get their balloon and their gear out of the woods.

Power and his crew are helping them out.

"They would have preferred to put down somewhere nicer than what they did," said Power.

The second-place finishers in this year's America's Challenge,  Krzysztof Zapart of Poland and Andy Cayton of the United States, flew 3,516 kilometres and landed near the Quebec-New Brunswick border.

In third were the defending four-time champs, Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke of Albuquerque. They touched down near Brighton, Vermont, after flying 3,119 kilometres.