As the balloon DaVinci TransAmerica slid north today through a light blue haze in southeastern Nebraska, three of its four crew members drank white wine and had their Sunday dinner.
"We are sort of living it up today. It's Sunday, you know, a day of rest," said crew member Rudolf J. Englemann, speaking over an aircraft radio to a twin-engine plane circling the 10-story-high balloon.
"Those other characters got all the wine while I had to fly," said Englemann, an environmental scientist who took over pilot duties during the afternoon from Vera Simons of McLean, Va., who normally flies the helium-filled craft.
The DaVinci, which left the Oregon coast last Wednesday in an attempt at the first nonstop balloon crossing of the United States, was stalled over the Great Plains for more than two days after it fell behind the westerly winds that had taken it to Denver at an average speed of 20 miles an hour.
Meterologists in Bedford, Mass., who are providing constant weather updates to the balloonists, said early today that the DaVinci had been trying to inch its way north to pick another batch of westerly winds. Late tonight it appeared that the maneuver may have succeeded as freshenings winds began shoving the craft eastward again.
At 11 p.m. EDT it was reported moving at 27 miles an hour, 9,000 feet above Maryville, in extreme northeastern Missouri.By early Monday, meteorologists said, it should be about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Earlier today, as the balloon meandered listlessly in the still air above the Great Plains, the mood of both crew members and support personnel seemed to match the atmospheric doldrums.
"The whole Kansas thing has been a tedious experience," said Tom Edmunds, a spokesman for the meteorologists. He said the balloonists complained this morning that they were getting tired of the flat Kansas countryside, notable for wheat fields and unrelentingly straight highways.
The Kansas tedium was violently interrupted at about 3 a.m. today over Emporia. A gust of wind spun the balloon around six times, jerking its gondola up and down.
"When you're in a balloon you move with the wind and you normally never feel it," said Dr. Fred Hyde, the crew's radioman and a Kansas eye surgeon. "But, by golly, we had wind last night."
The wind disturbance, Hyde said, made some of the crew a little dizzy, but wasn't serious enough to awaken Simons, who was sleeping on the lower level of the gondola, a 10-foot fiberglass cube.
The Davinci, which by 11 p.m. EDT had traveled more than 1500 miles in 108 hours, was forced south into what meteorologists call "a hole" in prevailing westerly winds and has been on a more southerly course than had been planned. This occurred early Friday when the balloon was caught for several hours over the 15,000-foot peaks of the Colorado Rockies.
Despite the delay over Kansas, which put the balloon about 24 hours behind its scheduled Tuesday landing in Norfolk, meteorologists said today the balloon is in "ideal shape" to reach the East Coast by Wednesday.
Having been told earlier that good winds were on their way, the balloonists relaxed today above the harvested wheat fields near Tecumseh, Neb. They sounded over the radio as though they were on a Sunday picnic.
"We're not doing much of anything up here," said Englemann, whose Sunday dinner was freeze-dried scrambled eggs.
Pilot Simons, who said she planned to wash her hair right after dinner, also ate freeze-dried scrambled eggs with bacon and topped her meal with dried banana chips. Hyde and Randy Birch, the NBC cameraman aboard the balloon, had green peas and chicken and rice.
Drifting over the prairie today, Hyde said he heard dogs barking, cows mooing and crickets chirping. Last night, he said, moonlight lit up the gondola and the checkerboard-patterned farmland below.
As the balloonists were eating dinner today, they received a radio-telephone call from Maxie Anderson, the Albuquerque, N.M., balloonist who last August was aboard the first balloon to cross the Atlantic.
"We're pulling for you," said Anderson, who called from Boston, where he's promoting his new book "Double Eagle," a chronicle of his flight with two other Albuquerque men across the Atlantic.
Aboard the DaVinci, Simons also is keeping notes for a book about her trip.