"If world records were easy, everyone would have a few." That simple statement is Dr. Bussey's testament to the hours upon hours of planning, development and experience gained in the process of setting 30 US and 15 World hot air balloon records. What began in 1986 as a simple "quest" for one record has developed into a 20 year journey making Dr. Bussey one of the most prolific world record setting pilots in the sport's modern era.
His most recent effort, a 21 hour plus flight from Okema, Oklahoma to near Tyler, Texas in late January 2000 went off like clockwork. But it hasn't always been that way. When he set out to claim that very first record in 1986, after weeks of preparation, at the critical moment of unpacking the equipment to prepare for launch, it was discovered that something was missing --- the balloon's envelope had been left at home. "If world records were easy..."
The following is a summation of the World Record setting flights of Dr. Bill Bussey...
March 1, 1986. Dr. Bussey launches at 7:05 A.M. from his hometown of Longview, Texas and lands at 11:47 A.M. near Lake Charles, Louisiana, a distance of 179 miles for a new AX5 world distance record (previously 136.77 miles). Dr. Bussey flew in a specially designed Kevlar basket. The envelope and burner were standard Balloon Works Firefly equipment. Bussey lands with 7.5 gallons of fuel left but had to terminate the flight "because the land had run out and it was a long way across the Gulf of Mexico."
January 10, 1987. Dr. Bussey again launches from Longview, Texas and lands 5 hours and 54 minutes later near Philadelphia, Mississippi claiming a new world distance record of 325 miles for the AX6 class of hot air balloons. Bussey climbed to a maximum altitude of 14,200 feet although most of the flight was made between 11,500 to 13,000 feet. At one point Flight Service tracked the balloon at 82 mph. The flight was made using standard Balloon works equipment. As Bussey did not own a AX6 size balloon he borrowed that and everything else used for the flight except for one ten-gallon fuel tank.
January 24, 1993. Dr. Bussey launches from Amarillo, Texas and flies north for 29 hours and 15 minutes setting new world records for duration in the AX8 - AX12 size balloons. He lands near Milbank, South Dakota covering a distance of 755.47 miles, also good enough for two additional world records for distance in the AX8 and AX9 classes. Bussey was flying a 105,000 cubic foot experimental balloon developed by Per Lindstrand of Thunder & Colt Balloons. The balloon was built of a metallic mylar fabric like that developed for the first hot air balloon crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This flight was recognized by the National Aeronautic Association as One of the Top Ten Most Memorable Flights for 1993.
February 3, 1995. Dr. Bussey launches from Chanute, Kansas in another experimental "metal" balloon built by Thunder & Colt US. The plan is to attempt to break his own World Distance Record of 325 miles for AX6 balloons set in 1987. Climbing to near 18,000 feet the balloon reached a top speed of more than 108 miles per hour en route to a landing near Savannah, Georgia 892 miles away. The flight set a total of four World Records and ten US National Records for distance. Once again, as on his first record flight, Bussey was forced to land because he literally ran out of land. This time the body of water facing him was the Atlantic Ocean!
February 3, 1996. Recognizing the outstanding capabilities of his little metal balloon on the flight to the Atlantic, one year later Dr. Bussey was ready to try again. This time the target was duration for the AX6. He knew the balloon could fly far, now he wanted to see how long it could fly. The attempt would take advantage of an extreme cold weather (-25 degrees) front. Bussey launched at 5:40 P.M. from McAlester, Oklahoma. From the beginning things had gone wrong. It took more than an hour and 40 gallons of fuel just to inflate the balloon in 10-15 knot winds that were supposed to have been 3-5. Prior to inflation one of two barographs had broken. Two hours into the flight a propane leak resulted in a flash fire that forced the shut down of first one burner, then the secondary, then the pilot light. More equipment failed - two UHF radios, two FM radios, and the GPS all succumbed to the numbing cold. Even one of two chase trucks was left on the side of the road with a broken fan belt. Shortly after dawn the next day the flight came to an abrupt and unexpected ending as the balloon brushed a pecan tree, opening several tears in the fabric and forcing Bussey to land near Crockett, Texas. Despite all of this a new World Record was achieved at 14 hours 14 minutes of flight time. Calling the flight his most harrowing ever, Bussey later joked "We broke the record and everything else!"
January 29, 2000. It had been four years since the AX6 duration flight had been forced to an early end. With 30 gallons of fuel left at the end of the that flight everyone knew the record could be extended. In fact, a Japanese pilot had already extended it to over 15 hours. If the '96 flight was one where everything went wrong, this one went like clockwork. Okema, Oklahoma was the launch site this time. Another severe winter storm had covered Oklahoma in snow and north Texas in ice. However temperatures were only in the 20's instead of the 20 below experienced in 1996. The little 56,000 cubic foot "metal" balloon first flown in 1995 was again used for this attempt. Winds during the flight never exceeded 10-15 knots and were almost calm at launch and landing. After 21 hours and 13 minutes in the air, Dr. Bussey executed a perfect stand-up landing near Tyler, Texas and succeeded once again in rewriting the record books with his 14th World Record and 29th US National Record.
(Note: balloons are broken into size classes based on their volume, beginning with AX1 and up to AX15. Even though a flight may be made in an AX6 size balloon, if its performance is greater than the record set by larger volume balloons, the pilot is awarded the record in the larger class as well, thus it is possible to achieve more than one record per flight.)
Marvel Cave, May 20, 1994
Not all world records are as serious as others. The flights noted above were all sanctioned by the National Aeronautic Association and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Some records are more like those certified by Guinness.
Such was the case when on May 20, 1994 Dr. Bussey joined with pilots Jim Herschend, John Wallis, Pat Kimmerling, and Guy Gauthier to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Marvel Cave in Branson, Missouri by flying balloons underground!, The balloons used were tiny one-man models usually referred to as "cloudhoppers."
Discovered in the 1500's by Osage Indians, Marvel Cave with its Cathedral Room is the largest cave entrance room in the U.S. (20 stories tall and a city block long). It had been operated as a tourist attraction since 1894. Balloons had been flown in the cave before. In 1963 by Don Piccard and Jack Herschend (Jim's father) and again in 1988 when Jim Herschend and Carson Eliff inflated two balloons there.
All of the equipment had to be carried down the day before (it's 621 steps to the bottom!) as the attempt had to be made and everything removed from the cave the next morning before it opened to the public, a short 3 hour window from 6 - 9 A.M. Even as small as they were the balloons had to be inflated one at a time on a small observation deck, then dropped over the side to the cave bottom. Pat Kimmerling was first, Dr. Bussey second and John Wallis followed. With his successful inflation a World Record was achieved for most balloons flown underground. Following in quick succession were Jim Herschend and Guy Gauthier bringing the total balloons to five. With some additional help the balloons participated in a game of "capture the flag" and then joined together for the first ever underground balloon glow.
Three World Records were set -- most balloons flown underground, first underground balloon competition and first underground balloon glow! The event received wide media coverage including the cover of Balloon Life magazine.