A British couple will bid to make ballooning history next year as they set out on a record-breaking balloon flight across the Atlantic.
Mike Scholes and Deborah Jane Day have been regular flying partners since Mike, a former military and commercial airman, lost his sight 11 years ago – but not before he had helped Deborah gain her pilot’s licence.
Deborah aims to be the first lady to captain a balloon across the Atlantic and if successful will smash world distance and duration records. Mike will also be the first registered blind person to crew on such a flight.
The 2,800 mile fundraising flight from Dartmouth in Canada to Dartmouth, Devon, in aid of Blind Veterans UK is expected to take between five and 10 days during which the duo’s 85ft Rozière balloon will be lifted by a combination of helium and hot air to altitudes of more than 18,000ft.
“The balloon will fly between 500 and 16000 feet depending on weather,” says Mike, who is one of only seven British pilots to have flown at three times that height. “Snow is our biggest concern, but above 10,000ft you’re also short of oxygen. I’ve experienced oxygen deprivation on balloon flights before. When you reach 10,000ft it’s like having your first gin and tonic when you get in from work… it hits you but then the body adjusts.”
The couple’s cramped, 1.8m x 1.4m super-light, British-made basket will carry oxygen cylinders and masks together with natural wool clothing and a sleeping bag to insulate them from the cold – “We will avoid static by wearing wool and cotton,” says Mike.
The couple will keep in touch with Mission Control at home in Lindfield, West Sussex, primarily via smartphone and a solar-powered iPad, loaded with a unique app that allows Mike to monitor the flight while Deborah is asleep. They’ll share the rest of the living space with helium cylinders for the balloon, survival and rescue equipment to be used in the event of a marine landing together with back-up communication equipment and food supplies.
Mike, a veteran of five duration record breaking hot air balloon flights, lost his sight at the age of 53 to Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy – a rare condition affecting mostly young men in the UK.
“Up until then I was running a successful commercial passenger balloon company, but I gave it up because passengers felt more comfortable with a pilot who could see,” jokes Mike.
He took up long distance running with a local club, where he met Deborah, an endurance athlete, and went on to set himself increasingly demanding physical challenges, including a trek to the North Pole. But the #BalloonthePond flight will be his toughest yet.
“More have failed than succeeded in crossing the Atlantic by balloon,” says Mike, who is currently training to improve his physical endurance with Deborah.
“I find exercise is a big motivator and a boost, both physically and mentally. I do get frustrated by the lack of independence and exercise is something you can achieve without being reliant on other people.”
Deborah adds: “I couldn’t make the Atlantic trip without Mike. Although he cannot handle the landings, he is still a very competent, experienced balloonist.
“When we fly, we work as one. He’s a real adventurer – we have that in common.”
—end— 17 August 2018