ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Two pilots who completed a record-breaking flight across the Pacific Ocean in a helium-filled balloon returned to New Mexico on Sunday to the sounds of mariachi music and an enthusiastic and emotional welcome.
A large crowd greeted Troy Bradley of Albuquerque and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia at the Albuquerque International Sunport after they finished the historic journey a day earlier. The news conference was adorned with colorful balloon decorations to mark the occasion, and the event included a champagne toast.
Bradley had been planning the trans-Pacific flight for 15 years, and his wife said he was driven by a goal of doing something better than anyone else in the world.
"Our flight was absolutely amazing," Bradley told reporters and supporters.
The accomplished Albuquerque pilot had set his sights long ago on flying farther and longer in a gas balloon than anyone in history. He and Tiukhtyaev staked their claim to those records during a nearly seven-day trip across the Pacific Ocean in a helium-filled balloon.
Their adventure ended just after sunrise Saturday when they touched down in the water a few miles off the coast of Mexico's Baja California, and about 300 miles north of the popular beach destination of Cabo San Lucas.
Initial plans called for a picture-perfect landing on the beach, but winds pushing parallel to the coast forced the pilots to drop their trailing ropes into the ocean to help slow the balloon for a controlled water landing.
"That was the hardest part of the trip," Bradley said.
Hundreds of miles away at mission control in Albuquerque, cheers erupted and the cork was popped on a bottle of champagne. The team declared success once they knew the pilots had been picked up by a fishing boat. Mexican authorities helped to secure the balloon and capsule along with all the equipment aboard that was used to document the historic flight.
Back in Albuquerque on Sunday, another cork was popped on a bottle of champagne, this time with the two pilots and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who traveled to Mexico to personally meet the record-breakers.
"They helped put Albuquerque on the map," Berry said.
Bradley and Tiukhtyaev lifted off from Japan last Sunday. By Friday, they beat what's considered the "holy grail" of ballooning achievements, the 137-hour duration record set in 1978 by the Double Eagle crew of Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman in the first balloon flight across the Atlantic. They also easily exceeded the distance record of 5,209 miles set by the Double Eagle V team during the first trans-Pacific flight in 1981.
By the time they landed, the Two Eagle pilots had traveled 6,646 miles over six days, 16 hours and 38 minutes.
Asked if he and Bradley were still friends after such a long trip, Tiukhtyaev said no. "We stayed brothers," said Tiukhtyaev, who holds his own records and has participated in many long-distance gas balloon races in the United States and Europe.
Growing up in the former Soviet Union, Tiukhtyaev said he never thought about breaking the record with an American pilot. "But I've always dreamed about it since I was a child," he said in Russian.
The original route took the pilots on a path from Japan, across the Pacific Ocean and toward the Pacific Northwest before they encountered a wall of high pressure. They then made a sweeping right turn and headed south along the California coast for the Mexico landing.
"We enjoy great views," Bradley said. "We took some great photos."