ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – An audacious, nearly 7,000-mile-long trip across the Pacific Ocean came to an end Saturday as two accomplished pilots safely touched down in the water just off the coast of Mexico in their helium-filled balloon after shattering two long-standing records.
Troy Bradley of Albuquerque and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia landed 4 miles offshore in Baja California about 300 miles north of the popular beach destination of Cabo San Lucas. Initial plans called for a landing on the beach, but the pilots decided to come in low and drop trailing ropes into the ocean to help slow the balloon for a controlled water landing.
Mission control in Albuquerque was packed with supporters of the Two Eagles team as the balloon descended, with all eyes focused on a giant screen showing a map of the coast and the balloon's location.
It wasn't until the crowd received word that the pilots were safe and aboard a fishing boat headed to the shore that cheers erupted and the cork was popped on a bottle of champagne.
"I can say on behalf of the entire mission control center, that we are all very excited and relieved," mission control director Steve Shope said.
Bradley and Tiukhtyaev lifted off from Japan last Sunday morning. 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 Saturday, the pilots had traveled 6,646 miles over six days, 16 hours and 38 minutes.
"These are significant improvements over the existing records," Shope said. "We didn't break them by just a little bit. They were broken by a significant amount."
The world has been tracking the progress of the Two Eagles Balloon online and through social media sites. Still, the official distance and time of the flight must be confirmed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, a process that could take weeks or months.
"There will be no disputing whatsoever that they connected the dots," said Sam Parks, president of the Southwestern region of the Balloon Federation of America. He pointed to all the monitoring and tracking equipment aboard the balloon and the witnesses who watched the launch and the landing.
"We are so proud of what Troy and Leonid have done. They have certainly set the bar high for all of us," Parks said.
The trans-Pacific flight was 15 years in the making. Bradley and his family spent countless hours thinking about every aspect of the journey, said his wife, Tami Bradley, who is a balloon pilot herself.
"For Troy, it's a personal thing to do something better than anyone else in the world has done it before and to push himself," she said.
Bradley already holds numerous ballooning records. And his list of heroes includes none other than Abruzzo and Anderson.
"For Troy, it's also his way of paying homage to those who came before him by attempting to go after their records," his wife said.
After the balloon landed in the water, the pair sent out an SOS and a fishing boat picked them up, Tiukhtyaev said. The pilots stayed in the boat, with the deflated balloon until Mexican marines picked them up.
Tiukhtyaev said they both were dehydrated.
The pilots were said to be in good spirits at various times during the trip, but it was a grueling ordeal given the number of days they spent in the cramped balloon capsule. At high altitudes, they had to wear oxygen masks and bundle up against the 50-degree temperature inside the capsule. They had sleeping bags, a small onboard heater and a simple toilet.
Family members joked Saturday that the pilots were unshaven and in need of showers.
The original route took the pilots on a path from Japan, across the Pacific Ocean and toward the Pacific Northwest before they encountered shifting weather patterns. They then made a sweeping right turn and headed south along the California coast for the Mexico landing.