FARGO — During the early morning hours on Tuesday, Nov. 17, a crew assembled on an open field in southwest Fargo to launch a hot-air balloon in an attempt to break a world record.
An hour before launch, the crew brought out the essentials: a basket, some propane and 105,000 cubic feet of nylon set to be filled with hot air.
The man behind the madness is hot-air balloon pilot Bill Smith. The 68-year-old from Kentucky thought of everything in preparation for the flight that was set to float away from Fargo in the 10-degree air. He had lots of hand warmers, but not all of them were for his hands — some were intended to keep his instruments from getting too cold.
"This is an unusual flight, so there are a lot of items we normally, routinely, would not need," Smith said.
Smith was hoping to break a long-distance hot-air balloon record. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the international body that certifies world records for ballooning, Smith would have had to beat the current record of 1066.2 miles set by Andy Cayton on March 1, 2005. Smith's plan was to travel 1100 miles, floating from Fargo to his destination in North Carolina.
The question was, why did he choose to make his attempt in Fargo?
"Fargo is in what we balloonists refer to as 'long jump alley,'" Smith said. "We get the cold air out of Canada, (and) it gives me fuel efficiency to make a 12-to-13-hour flight."
While Smith had been planning this attempt for years, the decision to make the trip to Fargo and make the attempt on Tuesday was decided in only a matter of minutes. He had to wait for the weather to be optimal for the attempt. It is this special alley in North Dakota that allowed Smith to attempt his trip to North Carolina to break the record, flying at 17,000 feet and reach speeds of 120 mph.
"I have been planning this for the third year in a row, but we have never had this type of weather system so we have been waiting three years," Smith explained.
Finally, the 70-foot-long, giant nylon bag quickly became a balloon. Smith, minutes away from launch, fired up his propane-powered dream, gave his crew a word of thanks and set off, floating fast into a dark North Dakota night.
Unfortunately, no record was broken in the attempt. According to a Facebook post made by The Lake Geneva Balloon Company, Smith ended up landing in Indiana due to his fuel consumption being higher than anticipated, along with other minor technical issues.