HAMPDEN, Maine — Rob Bayly arrived Saturday afternoon in Bangor to spend a few nights with old friends. One of the places he made sure to visit while in the area was Bass Park, the launching site of the Chrysler Transatlantic Challenge balloon race in 1992.
“To stand in Bass Park yesterday brought it all back,” said Bayly, who was one of the pilots of the British team that competed in the five-nation race across the Atlantic Ocean, the first event of its kind ever attempted. “When we took off from here it was hard to know even if the balloon would fly that long. We feared for our lives at times. So to achieve it and land safely, just to see [the Bass Park field] again … it’s very hard to explain the emotions.”
It has been nearly 18 years since the Chrysler Challenge focused, for a time, the world’s attention on Bangor, while captivating the city and its residents. That excitement may now be part of the city’s history, but for Bayly it lives on.
As he was in 1992, Bayly is a television producer for the BBC. He is now directing the popular TV program “Antiques Roadshow” and had a long-term leave coming to him from the network.
Bayly decided to spend a few weeks in the U.S., including two nights with Hampden resident Daniel Brooks and his family. An optometrist in Bangor, Brooks was, at the time of the race, the president of Bangor Lions Club, which sponsored the British team.
Bayly and Brooks have kept in touch over the years through Christmas cards and e-mails.
“I’ve just got a strong affection for Bangor and the people of Bangor, particularly people like Dan and his family,” said Bayly, who is now 57 and living in Bristol, England. “It’s such a wonderful, warm community.”
The Chrysler Challenge featured two-person teams from the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium competing to be the first to make it across the Atlantic Ocean in helium-fired balloons brought to Bangor from Cameron Ballooning of Bristol, England.
The Belgian team won with a crossing time of 115 hours, followed by Britain’s Bayly, whose partner was balloon company owner Don Cameron, in 128 hours. The U.S. team finished third, but broke the world duration record by staying aloft 144 hours and 16 minutes.
The German and Dutch teams were forced to ditch due to technical difficulties before they made landfall.
Before the race, Bayly and the rest of the pilots spent about seven weeks in Bangor while they were testing the balloons and waiting for the right weather for a launch. The crews lived at the Holiday Inn on Main Street during those weeks, and Bayly was surprised this weekend to see the new Hollywood Slots building in its place.
Brooks said the Lions Club got involved in the race after receiving a phone call from Les Stevens, who was then working for a private nonprofit group called Bangor 2000 seeking organizations to host the balloon pilots and teams.
“At the time, the city of Bangor knew not just the pilots but their families and others connected with the race were going to be here, and [the city] knew that they couldn’t supply all of the entertainment,” Brooks said. “There certainly was quite a lot of work to help out the race itself, preparing the launch site, helping the launch, helping on some of the other events they had. It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The Lions took the pilots to Bar Harbor for a whale-watching trip, Bayly recalled. The pilots had a chance to fly in a light plane. Bayly even rode in a sulky guiding a horse around Bass Park’s harness-racing track.
The start of the race was postponed several times due to weather. The teams finally took off at 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1992. Bangor’s location made it a logical place to launch.
“You take off from here and you’ve got, depending on wind speed, 12-20 hours over land before you hit the ocean,” Bayly said. “In these type of balloons, if you had a technical problem you’d find out about it in your first night and you can still land on land.”
Bayly and Cameron landed Monday, Sept. 21, in Figueiroa da Foz, Portugal. Among the mementos Bayly has kept is a piece of mail he had stamped in Bangor before the flight and then in Portugal after the landing — balloon mail, he called it.
Bayly, who returned to Bristol after the race, is no longer doing extreme balloon racing similar to the Chrysler Challenge. He has since remarried — Bayly said his former wife, Julia Bayly, also recalls fondly her time in Bangor while she was helping the British team — and now has a 12-year-old son, Matthew.
Bayly still balloons for fun, however. He met his current wife, Jan, during a ballooning event in Malaysia, and they have ballooned together in Sri Lanka and Italy. He and Cameron, who are still very friendly, are working together to host this summer the up to 20-team Gordon Bennett International Gas Balloon Race, which will launch from Bristol. The team that flies the farthest wins the race.
Large-scale balloon events are hard to arrange, Bayly said, because of the cost. But he thinks the current interest in environmentalism may jump-start ballooning.
“A balloon represents a pure form of flying, particularly if you use hydrogen which is natural gas produced as a waste product,” he said. “We think it represents a challenging sport and a good event for a sponsor because it’s very green. We’ll come back to Bangor and bring 10 balloons, eh? We just need a friendly sponsor.”
Bayly would also like to bring his son to Bangor some day. Matthew, his father said, wants to be a balloon pilot.
Matthew Bayly has a significant piece of Rob Bayly’s Maine memorabilia.
Before Bayly and Cameron took off, they were given inflatable toy lobsters that they hung from the bottom of their balloon’s gondola. The lobsters popped when the Brits reached 10,000 feet in their balloon, but Bayly kept a lobster, patched the hole, and it’s now in Matthew’s room.
“The race was 18 years ago, a long time,” Rob Bayly said. “But Bangor holds a very strong place in my heart, really.”