Pre-North Pole Hot Air Balloon Expedition
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Rick Schimpf, chief of the Paoli-based Air Ventures Balloon Rides Inc. crew,
inspects a hot-air balloon before a Chesco flight.

Six hot-air balloonists will face special dangers
when they fly in the cold weather over Siberia.

By Adrienne Lu
INQUIRER CORRESPONDENT

 

WEST VINCENT-This crew may be preparing to fly over the North Pole in a hot-air balloon, but when they gather, it is not as a technical team, but as a family.

They've been meeting about once every 10 days, since Christmas, six middle-aged adults hailing from West Vincent, West Goshen, Exton, and Springfield, Delaware County.

Two are full-time professionals at the sport of hot-air ballooning; the others are simply hobbyists, with day jobs ranging from computer troubleshooter to police officer to auto-body repair-shop owner.


Paul Pepino waits to release the balloon as passengers are helped into the gondola. The crew is preparing for a flight over the North Pole from April 14-25.

Some have hot-air ballooned in such exotic locations as Jamaica, Australia, Africa and France. Their ballooning experience ranges from 18 months to 12 years.

From April 14 to 25, the Paoli-based Air Ventures Balloon Rides Inc. crew will be the members of the only United States team among 10 groups from around the world to hot-air balloon over the North Pole, flying an hour or two each day.

Sure, when they gather, there's plenty of talk about the logistics of the trip-the equipment they will need; where they will get it; what kind of medical supplies to take; how they will transport 2,000 pounds of equipment to New York, from which they will fly via airplane first to Moscow, and then to Khatanga in Siberia; whether flares will be enough protection against polar bears; and other details that need to be worked out before the trip.

But when they sit down to dinner-for which responsibility rotates from one meeting to the next-there's a sense of common purpose and comfortable familiarity.

Hands link for grace, and seriousness settles in for a moment. The prayer covers the requisite thanks for food, company and health, and then asks for help in finding good weather, sponsorship and safe flying.

Together, the six-Debbie Harding, pilot; Rick Schimpf, crew chief; Walt Brestler; Paul Pepino; Joe Wolff; and Scott Alexander -prepare for the dangerous trip, inspired by their shared love for ballooning and an irrepressible sense of adventure.

Of course, the catchy thing about ballooning, Schimpf explained, is that "you don't need a reason to fly. You can take off in your backyard and fly and land in your front yard."

"It's a whole different type of p flying, really. It's science, more than mechanics," he said, comparing hot-air ballooning to flying an airplane.


Air Ventures crew members, including Debbie Harding (center) and Rick Schimpf (right); prepare the hot air balloon before a flight from a field off Route 100 in Ludwigs Corner.

For Harding, who owns Air Ventures, the trip offers the opportunity-and the stress-of becoming the first woman to ever pilot a hot-air balloon over the North Pole.

Twelve years ago, Harding's love for ballooning began when she went on a hot-air balloon ride with a friend whose husband refused to go. A few years later, she made ballooning her life, starting the business that now fills her basement with wicker balloon baskets and her days with balloon-related business.

The challenges of ballooning over the North Pole are unique, Harding explained. For one thing, the survival gear each of the balloonists will be required to wear-to endure temperatures of 50 degrees below zero-will make maneuvering difficult.

The wind will be another complicating factor, since normally, balloonists try to fly in wind speeds of about 10 m.p.h.; at the pole, they will be higher.

Then, too, there is the challenge of not seeing where you are going. Hot-air balloon pilot, Harding explained, rely on visual cues such as trees and the ground, to help them determine where they are, and how o control the balloon. But at the North Pole, there are no trees, the ground is ice, and there is no perceptible horizon to separate ground from sky. . : .. "Supposedly, everything's kind of white. Depth perception could be pretty difficult," she said.

This year's crews, however, will at least have the advantage of learning from the experience of last year's teams. The annual trip, or,organized by the Association of Space Exploration, Para-rescue of Central Moscow, the Russian Balloon Federation, and the Russian Arctic Air Force, brings together balloonists from around the world.

Still, unhampered by precedence .' or lack of it-the Pennsylvania Crew will be exploring some territory~ of its own. Aside from Harding's first for women, Brestler will attempt the . first parachute jump from a hot-air balloon at the North Pole. Having jumped from hot-air balloons about 50 times, he said, he is not particularly nervous about the jump.

But then, as with everything else, the conditions will be different at the pole. Harding pointed out that the colder temperature would mean Brestler would be "dropping like a rock."

As the crew's paramedic, Pepino -who was a medic in the Air Force for eight years-is charged with preparing for any medical emergencies.

Closer to the trip, the crew will~ become more organized, as details fall into place. But for now, the conversation about medical supplies at a recent meeting wandered from sand casts to water filters to how to exercise to get in shape for the trip.

In fact, a ravioli dinner served as a backdrop to a conversation that made the trip seem almost unreal, touching on subjects from the camaraderie of balloonists to the prospect of eating suet for fuel, to why plastic sunglasses, not metal, should be used (cold metal would stick to the skin).

If these details seem far removed from the experience of ballooning they will certainly seem that way from the perspective of travelers in a hot-air balloon floating above the North Pole in complete silence. '

While on the ground, the crew will e-mail local schools daily with trip reports.

But when the balloon is afloat, the l crew members say, the experience will be the real, with no one around but the crew and the open sky.

 


Rick Schimpf. Left, Debbie Harding and Walter Berstler
Inspect the balloon that will travel to the North Pole.

By GRETCHEN METZ
Staff Writer

Local Balloon team set to explore North Pole

WEST VINCENT-Air Ventures is preparing some hot air for the North Pole. From April 14 to 25, a team of six balloonist from Air Ventures, along with nine other teams from around the world, will explore the North Pole from hot air balloons.

The expedition is being organized by the Association of Space Exploration, Para-rescue of Central Moscow, the Russian Balloon Federation and the Russian Arctic Air Force.

Air Ventures has already participated in competitions in Africa, France, Canada and Jamaica.

"It's the last frontier," said Air Venture owner Debbie Harding of West Vincent. "I wanted to do the Antarctic, that would have been one more of the seven continents, but the North Pole ... we just have to do it."

If successful, Harding will be the first woman balloon pilot to-conquer the North Pole.

The team plans to send daily e-mail progress reports back to local schools that so far include West Chester School District's elementary schools, Haverford Township School District's middle and elementary schools, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District's Conestoga High School and Unionville/Chadds Ford School District's elementary schools.

"It's an honor to do this for education and for the kids," said crew chief Rick Schimpf of West Vincent.

The North Pole expedition differs from Air Ventures' other distance competitions. The object of the North Pole adventure is to see who comes back alive.

"There's no horizon," Harding said. "The sky is white, the snow is white. Depth perception is way off."

Air Venture, the only team so far to be representing the United States, will fly from Philadelphia to Moscow. From there, they fly four and a half hours to an arctic air base, and then move to an ice camp close to the pole.

Three members of the team will fly the balloon, and three members will be on the chase team. The chase vehicle will be a helicopter.

Besides Harding and Schimpf, other members include crew systems specialist Walt Berstler of West Goshen, crew paramedic Paul Pepino, a former U.S. Air Force paramedic, of Delaware County and crew historian Scott Alexander. Air Venture is still looking for its sixth crew member.

These days. Schimpf says he has three things on his mind: Sponsors. Sponsors. Sponsors. If we don't get sponsorship, we can't do it. We're just looking to cover our expenses."

Air Ventures needs corporate sponsorship to the tune of $75,000 to $100,000 for arctic survival clothes, satellite communications equipment and food. The balloon company will use its own hot air balloon equipment. All of the equipment will be shipped air freight to Moscow.

The team needs specialized communication's equipment because satellites are positioned over the equator and cannot be accessed from the North Pole, Harding said.

The big concern is weather Temperatures, including wind. chill, can drop to 100 degrees below zero. The last American team to try this expedition unpacked their equipment at the ice camp and found everything from the balloon to the cables, frozen in blocks.

Arctic clothes are also a problem, Schimpf said. Flesh will flash freeze at those temperatures, so every part of everybody will be weighed down--in arctic wear. ''

"We heard it takes 45 minutes to tie your shoes," Schimpf said