Imagine just for a moment that your living room, kitchen, office, bedroom, media center, and (yes) bathroom were in a space the size of a king-sized bed, with a ceiling too low for most adults to stand upright. Then imagine you were sharing this space with a roommate. And then, imagine that this space is suspended 18,000 feet over the world’s largest body of water.
This gives you just a glimpse of what life is like aboard the Two Eagles balloon, as pilots Leonid Tiukhtyaev and Troy Bradley continue their quest to cross the Pacific Ocean and set a new distance record for gas balloons.
Their “home” for the crossing is a five-foot by seven-foot capsule built in Albuquerque by Composite Tooling. It is a Kevlar/carbon-fiber composite, giving it tremendous strength at a very light weight (about 220 lbs or 100 kg). It is designed to withstand the impact of a hard landing and provide shelter from whatever inhospitable conditions may be encountered.
But comfort? Not so much. The capsule is only five feet high. Tiukhtyaev and Bradley can only stand upright in the center of the gondola, where there is a bubble-shaped hatch. Wearing safety harnesses, they often have to crawl out on top of the capsule to maneuver the balloon – release gas from the top to go down, or release sand ballast (expendable weight) to go up.
Inside, there’s a narrow platform on which one of the pilots can sleep and a couple of small shelves for communications gear and flight instruments. There’s a propane heater, so despite outside temperatures that can drop well below zero, the capsule actually stays fairly warm.
For food, the pilots carry freeze-dried hikers’ meals, fresh fruit, beef jerky, energy bars, and other quick and easy foods to eat. They also carry “comfort foods” – their favorite snacks – to entice them to eat. Drinking lots of fluids – water, electrolyte-replacement drinks, and other beverages – is very important to prevent dehydration, especially since the pilots spend most of the flight at high altitudes that require oxygen. But pilots who fly long distance gas flights will tell you, almost to a man or woman, is that they almost have to force themselves to eat. They simply don’t have much of an appetite.
In their “cockpit”, the pilots have the most advanced avionics and communications equipment package ever carried by a transoceanic balloon. Their arsenal includes radios and transponders for communications with air traffic control facilities, trackers that report the balloon’s position to Mission Control and the live tracking page on the team’s Internet site, and satellite phones and computers for communications with the team. They also carry two emergency beacons that when activated report directly to search and rescue satellites. All this gear takes up more than half the space in the capsule.
And – it’s the most frequently-asked question – they do have a simple toilet. Though the fact that they don’t eat much helps in this area.
For all that, the pilots report they’ve been reasonably comfortable and are in good spirits. Though they’ve been busy with communications and with flying the balloon, Troy has been filling his limited down time with watching movies (no report on what they were). The flight continues to progress normally and have traveled more than 2,300 miles (3,701 km). The balloon is now headed almost due east through the night at a steady 50 mph (43 knots or 80.5 kph), flying at an altitude of 15,388 feet (4,675 meters). The goal of the flight is to set a new absolute distance record for gas balloons. The current record is 5,208 miles, set by Double Eagle V in 1981.