Two balloonists parachuted into a cactus-studded pasture Friday after a tear doomed their round-the-world quest just an hour after launch. The pilotless balloon, laden with explosive fuel, floated east for about eight hours before landing in Texas.
Dick Rutan and Dave Melton, hoping to become the first to fly nonstop round the world in a balloon, parachuted in 45 mph winds Friday morning. They landed a quarter-mile apart about 13 miles southeast of the town of Vaughn.
Rutan, 59, hit cactus and suffered bloody puncture wounds all over his nose and cheeks. He was still pulling cactus needles from his face hours later.
Melton, 39, hit the only wire fence in the wide-open area, and later was hospitalized in serious condition with a dislocated hip and ankle.
“He was curled up on the ground. He was in pain,” said Vaughn Police Chief J.R.
Romo, who saw the pair parachute. “He cussed us out, saying it hurt.”
The flight was going fine until “all of a sudden there was this boom,” Rutan said at a news conference. “Dave looked at me and said ‘We’re in trouble.”’ Rutan said they considered trying to land, but surface winds were too strong.
“We were airborne in something that was highly suspect, heavily laden with fuel, and Dave and I came to the realization we have to abandon this thing,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all aircraft to stay clear of the 170-foot unmanned balloon, which ended up draped over some trees near Gainesville, about 45 miles north of Dallas.
Before coming to a stop, the balloon touched down and sparked a small fire, which was extinguished. It was unclear if the fire was caused by a propane tank.
Earlier Friday, the North American Air Defense Command sent up chase planes to keep watch on the balloon. FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said the balloon was not seriously interfering with air traffic and that he had heard no talk of trying to shoot down the craft.
A rip in the helium-filled inner balloon was reported at 7:28 a.m. Friday, about an hour after the craft lifted off from Albuquerque. The men parachuted out of the silver vessel’s ball-shaped capsule around 9 a.m., just 100 miles into their journey.
Rutan said they opened a gas valve before parachuting so that helium would seep out and the balloon would descend.
The balloon briefly touched down in New Mexico, but then bounced back up to 30,000 feet after some of its 20 propane tanks fell off. Team project manager Steve Shope said there was little risk that the 48-gallon tanks would explode.
The Global Hilton, which was making its maiden flight, is a combination hot-air balloon and helium balloon, with propane tanks to fuel the flames that warm the gas.
The plan had been to rise 32,000 feet into the jet stream and ride 200 mph air currents around the globe in about 14 days in the first nonstop round-the-world balloon flight.
Rutan, a former Air Force pilot, helped fly the experimental plane Voyager around the world nonstop 11 years ago. Melton, a technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has flown balloons for 15 years.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BEST LAID PLANS The plan had been to rise 32,000 feet into the jet stream and ride 200-mph air currents around the globe in about 14 days in the first nonstop round-the-world balloon flight.
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