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Sky is the limit for Manchester’s record breaking researcher

08 Sep 2009

A researcher from the University of Manchester is flying high after setting a new ballooning world record.

Dr Janet Folkes and Dr Ann Webb at this year's event. Copyright Michel Bobillier
Dr Janet Folkes and Dr Ann Webb at this year's event. Copyright Michel Bobillier

Dr Ann Webb and experienced balloon pilot and engineer Dr Janet Folkes from The University of Nottingham are the only all female team taking part in the annual Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett – a race established in 1905 where crews of two aim to fly their gas balloons as far as possible.

And Dr Webb, who works in the Centre for Atmospheric Science in The School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences (SEAES) and Dr Folkes have today (Tuesday 8 September) broken the female duration world record of 60 hrs and 12 minutes – a record set in 1995.

In a text message sent from the skies over Spain at just after 12.30pm BST Dr Webb and Dr Folkes said: “Over Spain. Just set female world record for duration over 60 hours. Still flying – 1000 km.”

At one stage, Dr Webb and Dr Folkes were one of just five remaining teams. They landed safely just south of Madrid at around 9pm local time on Tuesday after having covered 1,100km and flying non-stop for around 70 hours.

Often compared with the America's Cup for sailing this duration race is described as the most prestigious event in aviation and the ultimate challenge for the balloon pilots and equipment.

A message posted on the official race website said: “We congratulate Janet and Ann on their great achievement. Although figures are unconfirmed and unofficial at this stage it looks very good for a new world record.”

Messages of support have also appeared on the site. One message read: “Congratulations Janet and Ann from British observers. So proud”.

One of 16 teams, Dr Folkes and Dr Webb took off from a sports ground in Geneva late on Saturday night. Their open wicker basket has less floor space than your average office lift and the pair must wear bulky flight suits to protect them from freezing temperatures.

The pair was due to take part in last year’s competition, which was cancelled at the last minute. Instead they took part in the Stuttgart Cup in Germany, where Ann made her first proper flight in a gas-filled balloon.

They flew overnight across Germany, reaching altitudes of over 8,000 feet and a top speed of 28km per hour. They eventually landed 19 hours later near Linz in Austria - some 395km from their starting point.

Dr Webb regularly pilots the University's small Cessna aeroplane, which is equipped with sophisticated instrumentation to make a wide range of atmospheric measurements.

Dr Folkes is no stranger to international and endurance flying. She won the 10th America's Challenge gas balloon race in 2005 with her American co-pilot Bill Arras. They flew nearly 1,500 miles from New Mexico to Canada in 46 hours and 14 minutes. Her passion for flying does not stop there. She holds a private pilots licence for helicopters, hang gliders and paragliders and is an avid skydiver.

The international balloon competition was initiated by adventurer and newspaper tycoon Gordon Bennett in 1906. The competition is held once every year and hosted by the country of the most recent winner. 

Notes for editors

For photographs and more information please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Office, The University of Manchester, Tel 0161 275 8387.