BARI, Italy — Two missing American balloonists were plunging toward the Adriatic Sea at 50 mph 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, today.
Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, and Davis, 65, of Denver, 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 and descended slowly at first but then at a rate of 50 mph until 600 feet.
"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 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 an 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 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.
Abruzzo is the son of famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who in 1981 was part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon, and who was killed in a small airplane crash in 1985.