KY balloonist survives perilous trip across Europe, wins silver medal

KY man spends 56 hours racing across Europe in hydrogen balloon

SIMPSONVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It was the trip of a lifetime for a WAVE Country balloonist and he brought home a silver medal.

From his balloon inspection shop at his Simpsonville home, Bill Smith recounted his perilous race across Europe that started with pomp and circumstance in Switzerland and nearly ended in disaster in Italy.

“It was the most miserable 56 hours of my life, comfort-wise,” Smith said.

Smith, a member of the Balloon Society of Kentucky, was the co-pilot of a team that recently took second place in the 2018 Gordon Bennet Cup, described as the oldest and most prestigious gas balloon race in the world. Four others from Louisville were on the ground team, providing support with communication, logistics, medical monitoring and critical weather analysis.

Their balloon carried them over the Swiss Alps, where temperatures dived well below zero.
Their balloon carried them over the Swiss Alps, where temperatures dived well below zero. (Bill Smith)

Smith’s balloon was filled with hydrogen, which allowed Smith and the pilot, Andy Cayton of Tennessee, to stay aloft for days at high altitudes.

“It was below freezing going over the Alps,” Smith said. “It was down to about 12 degrees. We had arctic gear on but my feet were cold just from sitting and lack of circulation.”

The balloon was equipped with oxygen tanks. Smith said the trip would not have been possible without them.

The pilots had to use oxygen tanks and arctic gear to survive their journey.
The pilots had to use oxygen tanks and arctic gear to survive their journey. (Bill Smith)

“You began getting a headache, light headed, dizzy, very uncomfortable,” Smith said. “Typically, a pilot will go up to that altitude for a short period of time and land. But here we were up there for almost three days.”

Bone chilling cold, oxygen deprivation, fatigue and fickle winds drove them southward across Italy to near disaster in the waters off Naples.

“We had water survival suits, we had life preservers,” Smith said. “And if we were certain we were going to go down, we were prepared to put those on.”

But the ocean breezes were kind, gently pushing them to a landing outside Salerno. And the last few minutes of the flight proved to be the most dangerous of all, ending in an emergency landing, crashing 30 feet to the ground to avoid powerlines.

Smith broke his foot in the emergency crash landing that ended their journey.
Smith broke his foot in the emergency crash landing that ended their journey. (Bill Smith)

“That’s what you get when you make a dangerous nighttime landing,” Smith said. “But we had no choice. We were out of options. The balloon quit flying.”

The hard landing gave Smith a broken bone in his foot. A small price to pay, he said, for a silver medal and an amazing story to tell.

Smith’s balloon traveled 570 miles, a distance about 50 miles shorter than the first place finishers.

But would he do it again?

“That’s an interesting question. I haven’t decided that answer yet,” Smith said. “It was an experience of a lifetime. I wouldn’t give that up for anything in the world.”

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