After falling far behind the weather system it had ridden from the Pacific coast, the balloon DaVinci TransAmerica stalled today in a maze of shifting winds over the table-top flat wheat fields of southwest Kansas.
Unless the 10-story-tall balloon and its crew of four are able to catch another weather system headed east, its efforts to make the first transcontinental balloon crossing could be imperiled.
Piloted by Vera Simons of McLean, Va., the balloon battled downward wind drafts today as it flew as low as 1,000 feet over the sparsely populated, checkerboard pattern farm land north of Dodge City. At times, the balloon was so low that its crew was able to shout to farm families below.
The crew members, after flying more than 1,380 miles over four days, said in a ham radio interview they are optimistic that new gusts of strong winds will carry them east tomorrow.
"They may just wander around in the light variable winds for another day," said Bob Rice, the Bedford, Mass., meteorologist who radios the crew almost hourly advice on the weather.
When the DaVinci today dipped to 1,000 feet, its crew would yell hellos to the farmers who came out of their homes to catch a glimpse of the plastic helium balloon that glistened like silver in the midday sun.
In an afternoon interview over a ham radio circuit, crew member Dr. Rudolf J. Englemann said the DaVinci has received "unanimous good wishes" from the people who he has heard yelling back.
"One boy said this balloon was the biggest thing that's ever happened," Englemann, an environmental scientist, said. Englemann, who yesterday nearly flew over his own house in Boulder, Colo., said he told the boy that the balloon journey was the biggest thing that had ever happened to him, too.
Weatherman Rice said the balloon's "prolonged parking situation" over Kansas does not threaten the flight because the balloon has conserved enough helium and ballast for it to maneuver into favorable westerly winds when they do come by. By dropping sand or water ballasts, the balloon can go up; by venting helium it can go down.
Another system of westerly winds is supposed to move the balloon across Kansas and into Missouri by late tomorrow, the meterologist said.
As the balloonists endured a day in the doldrums of the cloudless Kansas sky, the state's governor, John Carlin, attempted to make radio contact with the DaVinci. "I was going to tell them how much we appreciate their coming our way, even if they didn't intend to come," Carlin said in an interview.
The balloon is flying more than 500 miles south of its planned flight path that would have taken it beween North and South Dakota on a six-day, nine-hour 2,295-mile flight to Norfolk, Va.
The Kansas governor said today that he wanted to tell the balloonists "that we have a lot of things to be proud of" in Kansas. One of those things, Carlin said, was that Kansas this year had the best wheat harvest in its history, approximately 402 million bushels.
The governor also said he wanted to tell the balloonists that the "most wonderful part" about Kansas, which he conceded is exceptionally flat, is the state's value to the rest of the world as a food producer.
One of the DaVinci's major worries today was the small planes which flew so close to the balloon that the crew complained to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA yesterday told the crew, via a Bellevue, Wash., ham radio operator, to write down the registration numbers of any planes that bothered them and promised that the agency would "deal with" the offending pilots when they land. Balloons, as lighter-than-air craft, have the right-of-way over all other aircraft under federal regulations.
Crewman Englemann said one pilot, in an old Army plane, flew near the balloon today, turned off the plane's engine and yelled a greeting.
Inside the gondola today, where temperatures were in the mid-70s, Englemann said the crew had a chance to clean up. He said that he and Randy Birch, the crew member aboard the DaVinci who is shooting video tapes for NCB television, took showers in the tiny shower stall located in a corner of the cube-shaped gondola.
Pilot Simons had said in a previous interview that she and the crew would use the low-altitude flight today to recover from the strain of crossing the Rockies, when they were forced to wear oxygen masks for two days and endure high altitude temperatures as low as 10 degrees. The cold froze their water and made efforts to bathe impossible, she said.
It was the balloon's prolonged stall yesterday amid the 15,000 foot peaks of the Rockies in Colorado that forced the balloonists out of the winds that carried them at an average speed of nearly 20 miles an hour from the Oregon coast. (Even so, the balloon set a new long distance record for U.S. balloon flight, traveling 1,084 miles, breaking a record of 1,058 miles set in 1924.)
"While the balloonists were wasting their time trying to get over Longs Peak (elevation 14,256 feet) yesterday, their weather was moving on through to the north," said Tom Edmunds, a spokesman for the meteorologists in Bedford.
Cmparing the balloon's movement in the winds to that of a surfer on the ocean, Edmunds said the DaVinci yesterday "lost its wave." Continuing the surfing analogy, he said the balloonists "now have to paddle slow and low (around Kansas) to where the next wave is coming and catch it."