Aconcagua crossing – Flight Diary by Uwe Schneider

Published on World Wide Ultramagic Team

Aconcagua crossing – Flight Diary by Uwe Schneider.
On the 3rd February 2010 Josep Mª Lladó and Uwe Schneider successfully crossed the Andes flying directly over the Aconcagua – the highest mountain in the western hemisphere at 6,962m (22,835ft). They were flying the Ultramagic Ecomagic Aconcagua N-180 balloon. Here is the actual diary account of the built up to the flight and the actual flight day written by Uwe with in-flight photographs.

                                                    * Open Flight Track Map (pdf file)

Aconcagua crossing videos: * Travesía del Aconcagua part 1   * Travesía del Aconcagua part 2
                                                    * Aconcagua 2010_640x480         * Aconcagua 2010 directors cut


Tuesday 2 February morning:
Based on the latest wind profiles of Michael Noll we decided at the breakfast that the flight will be tomorrow at sunrise and that we will fly from a place with bearing of 135 to 140 * to Aconcagua. On Wednesday we will have wind from 300 to 310 at altitude and a layer of 330 with 35 to 40 kt at 4000 to 5000 m. Thursday forecast shows more northerly winds in the intermediate and upper layer.

After breakfast we go to refuel all cylinders including 2 from Christian. One is for inflation and the other we will probably take to be sure we can fly until sunset in case it is needed. A safety measure only, as it looks like we will probably be on the ground after a flight of 4 hours. During refueling Josep-M and I prepare and test our oxygen systems. Then we go back to the hotel and pack our things – Bags we will take with us on the flight as well as suitcases that will stay behind in the van of Gabriel Massini.

On their way to Argentina they have to pass Los Andes and there they will collect his car. While the hotel is cleared a 4 people team is shopping for lunch and dinner as we will be camping outside at the take off field. They also shop for water and some food for the pilots. At 2pm we all meet for refreshment in the pool and an “asado” at Panchos house. Christian is on his way with the flares and Jaume Llansana is at customs to make sure we can take the rental cars and the balloon to Argentina and bring them back.

Tuesday 2 February afternoon:
We left our base camp at 10 past 4 as we had to finish the splendid water melon. Driving west to motorway 5 and heading north until Los Vilos. From there, east to Illapel and Salamanca. Just behind a petrol station where we refuelled, we are stopped by the Chile Police! –  Why ? Josep-M has his driver’s license in the other car but he convinces the policeman that the car is rented with him as driver, so the license has been checked only 4 days ago! So on we go.
We enter the street to Illapel and Salamanca. Passing Illapel we look at the GPS and see a bearing of 137 * to Aconcagua. That’s what we need according to the forecast. So we decide to stay here and not to enter more into the Cordillera, as also our retrieve crew will have to go back all the way tomorrow. From the bridge we see a nice green field at the river banquet and we try to go there. But when we manage to do so at the 3rd try, we get wet feet in our grass. So we drive around and find a nice field. We ask people and are led to one of the eldest houses in Illapel.

The owner Alfredo Aguilera welcomes us and tells us the long history of his family in Chile. But we get his authorization and internet access to look for the latest weather. Michel is still sleeping, but NOAA weather is already awake. Alfredo recommends the restaurant “Parrilladas Argentinas”, where we meet some minutes with our support team. We have a nice and quick meal and are joined by the TV 2 Choapa who were alarmed by Alfredo. Also during dinner the major of Illapel welcomes us by phone. After dinner we will prepare the basket under some street lights while the others will build up the tents. Ah, there will be a Rottweiler around on the field, Alfredo told us. But he will be nice when you call him by his name – Cisco.

Wednesday 3 February – Aconcagua Day:

At 6:15 we started the fan and filled the balloon. Local TV and press as well as some spectators admired the action. Christian phoned with Santiago CTR to get us a radio frequency. We put all instruments in place and set them to the frequency. Oxygen was armed and the warm coats put on. Then some words to the TV. I don’t remember what Josep-M said but my words were: “¡Vamonos ! ¡Hasta Argentina!”. A farewell hug and kisses from the friends on the ground and then lift off at 6:23.
We climbed gently for video and photographs, but soon we encountered the thin stratus layer. Ground disappeared and the view changed to the rising sun behind the cordillera. At 2000 m we found 20 km/h south and climbed faster to pass through it. At 6000 m we found a heading to the left side of our goal. So we went down again to between 4500 and 5000 m heading approx 10 degrees to the right of it.
In the higher altitude before we had put oxygen masks on and discovered a leak at the adapter of Josep-Ms system. Flying in the lower altitude enabled us to work on the problem. It was a good decision to take the bag with the tools, but even with Teflon tape we could not fix the problem. What to do? Abort the flight? We had 3 oxygen bottles on board, 2 of 5 liters for the mask systems and each system equipped with 2 masks. One system was almost full, the other half full from the leak. The 3rd bottle was of 8 liters feeding the oxygen supported pilot flames. We had all necessary tools to switch one system to the other. So we decided to carry on with the flight approaching at a lower altitude where we did not use too much oxygen except some breath from time to time!
The closer we came to Aconcagua, the more left the heading turned. 30 min before the mountain summit we climbed to 6000 m and 25 km before it we initiated climb for the jump over it. The climb was not as fast as intended as at 7000m the flames were not as powerful as before. Full and instantaneous opening of the valves fully blew out the pilot light and the main flame. Gently opening the valve to about half gave a nice flame, opening it more made it lift off the coils by some meters. So we used 2 burners with hand controls throughput to reach a climb between 2 and 3 m/s. With the turning wind we passed the summit of Aconcagua slightly to the north. A good side to take pictures as in 2004 Josep-M passed south and made photos from there. We climbed more to avoid the turbulence behind the peak but keeping a flame became more difficult. In the end we worked with 3 burners. The Mk-21 to start as here was the oxygen powered pilot light, producing a flame of a meter length. This one was used then to ignite the flame of the Powerplus. With this technique we made the balloon climb to over 9000 m. Josep-M had armed a flare in case there were pilot light problems but there was no need for its use.
Behind Aconcagua there is a deep valley where the road passes from Chile to Argentina, which we crossed diagonal. Then the next mountain chain rose to almost 6000 m and we stayed at altitude until passing it. Then we went down to the conger planes not exceeding 4 m/s descent rate. Speed dropped gradually and the wind shear that we passed through was relatively soft. The balloon mouth went concave at times but this was to be expected as we were relatively light for a 180 envelope. We then went down to 3500 m finding only 20 km/h wind. So we climbed again to 4000 m and went east south east with 28 km/h until we crossed the motorway, which leaves Mendoza to the south. From the clouds below us we saw that the lower wind was heading backwards. So we crossed the motorway by some 2 km and went down to the deck. Then we crossed it again in low level and touched down in an adjacent field at 12:06. Ground speed had been 17 km/h and we dragged about 15 m until we stopped.
We began to pack the envelope when a lot of people entered the field. They introduced themselves as local balloonist Eduardo Vaqués and the press. A lot of interviews were given and pictures were taken. About 40 min later we interrupted the interviews to pack the envelope as the ground wind had increased to some 35 to 40 km/h. Little sand tornados passed by when we put envelope and basket on the trailer of the friendly farmer. We left most of the equipment with him and went to Mendoza airport where we had to report to the authorities. There we learned that the flight plan and the Notam we were given in Chile is not valid in Argentina. Theoretically we crossed border and invaded controlled airspace without permission. But the officials were old friends of Josep-M and after being advised what to do next time the airport director helped us with immigration and customs. Then the local balloon friends arranged for a hotel for all of us. At 8 pm our ground crew arrived and the great day was honoured together with all friends having Paella and a good wine in the “Centre Català” in Mendoza.