After being caught for two hours in dangerous updrafts near 14,256-foot Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains near here, the balloon DaVinci Trans-America swept over downtown Denver today, setting a long distance record for ballooning in the continental United States.
By 4 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the 10-story-high craft, which lifted off Wednesday from Tillamook, Ore., had traveled 1,084 miles in 52 hours and 44 minutes.
The clear plastic helium balloon, piloted by Vera Simons of McLean, Va., and carrying her crew of three, shimmered in the cloudless sky here at nearly 17,000 feet as it broke a 55-year-old distance record for wind-borne, lighter-than-air flights over North America.
The old record of 1,058 miles was held by a hydrogen balloon that flew from San Antonio to Minneapolis in April 1924.
Soon after setting the record today and completing what was thought to be the most dangerous leg of its journey, the balloon plunged downward over southeastern Denver, stopping only 1,000 feet from the streets and houses of the city. Meteorologists in Bedford, Mass., who are tracking the flight, said tonight the rapid descent was caused by "roller coaster" winds coming down off the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
The winds hit the balloon, according to the meteorologists, just as pilot Simons was venting helium in order to allow a slow descent over the Colorado plains.
The "dip," which meteorologists said endangered neither crew nor the future of the flight, was halted when 60 pounds of used batteries were thrown overboard. The balloon then climbed to 10,000 feet.
Police in Denver said tonight they had no reports of injuries or damaged property from the falling batteries.
By 11 p.m. EDT, the balloon was reported to have traveled about 160 miles over southeastern Colorado. There, to stop the balloon from traveling further south, Simons lowered it to 5,000 feet and put it into "a parking action" in light winds, meteorologists said tonight.
The balloon is scheduled to ascend Saturday morning to pick up winds that the meteorologists said would be blowing more directly to the east.
This afternoon, the DaVinci, attempting the first nonstop balloon crossing of the United States, popped over the top of Longs Peak, swung southeast across the eastern slopes of the Rockies and drifted over Boulder at about 20 miles an hour.
The balloon, more than 500 miles south of its intended flight path, passed within two miles of the Boulder home of Dr. Rudolf J. Englemann, a crew member and director of the flight.
"We didn't expect the thing to come over the house," said Englemann's 15-year-old son Carsten, who watched it pass near here from the roof of the family home.
The crew, which has been breathing oxygen throughout most of the flight, used up almost 80 percent of its oxygen supply drifting above Cascade and Rocky mountain ranges at altitudes as high as 19,000 feet.
In an interview early today over a radio telephone, pilot Simmons said she and the crew wanted to descend to lower altitudes as quickly as possible.
"I'm anxious to come down because it is difficult to work on oxygen. You've got to keep your gloves on all the time, and you have to wear that oxygen mask," she said.
At dawn today the DaVinci was flying south of Laramie, Wyo., approaching the snow-shrouded peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park. early morning radio interview.
Simons, considered the most experienced woman gas (as opposed to hot-air) balloonist in the United States, said she managed to sleep six hours last night, all the time wearing an oxygen mask that she described as "itchy" and uncomfortable.
"If I sound a little crazy over the phone," she said, "it's because I'm talking between sips of oxygen."
In order to keep warm aboard the balloon, Simons said, the crew has been constantly heating water to make tea, coffee and hot chocolate. She said that last night a spotlight was turned on in the gondola to help keep the crew warm.
When she awoke before dawn, Simons said, frost had condensed on the tarpaulin, which is pulled down at night over the gondola as another means of keeping out the 10-degree cold.
It has been too cold for the crew to wash their hands or use the tiny shower that is located at one corner of the gondola, a 10-foot cube made of fiberglass and painted Day-Glo orange.
"We'll take showers," said flight director Englemann, "when we get over the prairie."
According to meteorologists tracking the balloon in Bedford, Mass., the craft took "a sharp left turn" over Denver today, changing its flight direction from southeast to almost due east. The balloon, which has been riding the winds of a fair weather system that originated in the Pacific, has maintained an average speed of 20 miles an hour.
The only major problem aboard the flight so far, according to Simons, has been the failure of most of the radios aboard.
Dr. Fred Hyde, the crew's radio expert, who is an eye surgeon from Prairie Village, Kan., spent most of yesterday working on the radios, taking them apart and spreading the components "all over the gondola," said Simons.
The radio-telephone, on which the crew has been communicating with the meterologists in Bedford and with assorted journalists, worked intermittently today and Hyde spoke last night over an amateur band (ham) radio to a man in Australia.
Just after dawn today, Englemann, a bearded environmental scientist who nearly managed to fly over his own house in the balloon placed a radio-telephone call to his wife Virginia.
He wished her a happy birthday, and, according to his wife, complained that the weather at 16,000 feet was hurting a hip that always acts up in the cold. He also said he was disturbed that someone had forgotten to pack more chocolate-covered peanuts.