BARI, Italy — Two missing American balloonists were plunging toward the Adriatic Sea at 50 mph (80 kph) when they dropped off air traffic control radar, a sign that they crashed and almost certainly were killed, organizers of the race they were competing in said Friday.
Flight director Don Cameron said that high rate of descent, if confirmed, leads him to be "very pessimistic" about the fate of veteran pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis.
The "only shred of hope" is that the readings from air traffic control in Zagreb, Croatia, were from the outer limits of its radar zone and might be incorrect, Cameron said. He added that he expects to confirm the data with Italian air traffic controllers in Brindisi, on the other side of the Adriatic, on Saturday.
Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Davis, 65, of Denver, Colorado, were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Wednesday morning in rough weather over the Adriatic.
Race organizers said the balloon "appears to have suffered a sudden and unexpected failure."
Cameron said he received information Friday from Zagreb indicating the balloon was at 5,300 feet (1,615 meters) and descended slowly at first but then at a rate of 50 mph until 600 feet (180 meters).
"At this rate of descent to the surface, survival would be unlikely," the race organizers said in a statement.
The Italian coast guard, the U.S. Navy and Croatian coastal aircraft crews have been scouring the area around Croatia's distant, uninhabited islet of Palagruza.
Abruzzo's wife, Nancy, was in Bari at coast guard headquarters on Friday monitoring the search effort. She said her husband had made a final radio transmission saying that he was preparing to ditch in the sea.
"We have every reason to believe that with his final transmission to air traffic that he would have had ... an adequate amount of time to prepare for an emergency sea landing which ... they are very prepared for," she said in a phone interview via cell phone before race organizers learned about the air traffic control data.
In the Gordon Bennett race, teams compete to fly the farthest on a maximum of about 1,000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet) of gas. Abruzzo and Davis won the 2004 edition of the race and the 2003 edition of the America's Challenge, a competition Abruzzo has won five times in all.
Abruzzo is the son of famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who was in 1981 part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon, and who was killed in a small airplane crash in 1985.
"It's in his blood," Nancy Abruzzo said. "It's who he is."
The Italian coast guard was unaware of any final radio transmission, said spokesman Lt. Massimo Maccheroni. He said the coast guard merely received information about the last automatic signal the balloon communicated to the air traffic control center in Bridinsi before losing contact.
The balloons are designed specifically for racing, equipped with a satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder and two mobile telephones. Most gas balloon racers – including Abruzzo and Davis – are hobbyists who spend thousands of dollars on the adventure sport.
Abruzzo works in a prominent family business in Albuquerque that is involved in real estate and operations of the Sandia Peak tramway, Sandia Ski Area and Ski Santa Fe. Davis is a radiologist who specializes in reading mammograms.
Kevin Knapp, a pilot and co-director of Americas Challenge race scheduled to begin Tuesday in Albuquerque, said the ballooning community was still focused on the search effort.
"Nobody out here is ready to give up," he said.
The America's Challenge, which is the U.S. version of the Gordon Bennett race, will go ahead as planned, he said, adding that Abruzzo and Davis would want it that way.
"There have been deaths on the hot air field during the balloon fiesta in the past. We've had moments of silence and then we continue the fiesta. Yes, it's in our hearts and minds, but as they say, the show must go on. Life continues. That's what they would want."
Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press reporter Mark Carlson in Phoenix and Tim Korte in Albuquerque contributed to this report.