The world’s oldest air race has ended in turmoil after an American team went missing in their hydrogen balloon over the Adriatic Sea.
Pilot Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis lost contact with the organisers of the Gordon Bennett Cup at 7am this morning.
They were one of 20 teams that took off from a field near Bristol on Saturday in a bid to fly as far as possible without landing.
But the American team – USA2 – went missing off the east coast of Italy while it was one of the last four remaining in the competition.
Don Cameron, from race control, said the last satellite tracker report from the missing balloon was at 0658 BST during heavy thunderstorms.
He said: ”The Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre have initiated an operation with a helicopter and fast boat although no distress beacon activation has been detected so far.
”The Croatian authorities and all shipping have been informed. Thunderstorm activity has been reported in the area. We are very concerned, but can only wait for news now.”
He added that organisers were in touch with the missing balloon’s ground team and Italian air traffic control.
Jo Bailey, spokeswoman for the race, said it is unclear whether the team are still flying or had been forced to come down.
She said: ”Search and rescue teams are out looking for them but we don’t know anything about their situation yet.
”It is possible that the team have just lost communications and are still flying. We hope that is the case.”
The 54th Gordon Bennett Cup is being hosted in Britain for the first time this year after adventurer David Hempleman-Adams, 55, was victorious in 2008.
Competitors take off from a specified site and the cup is awarded to the team which flies the furthest using just one ”fill” of hydrogen in its balloon.
Teams control their gas balloons by releasing gas to go down and throwing out one of their 50 sandbags to go up.
One of the British entries, piloted by Wiltshire-based David Hempleman-Adams and Steve Carey, landed in third place.
They landed in eastern Serbia having travelled 1,248 miles and flying for four nights and three days.
The winners were the Swiss team – SWI1 – made up of Max Krebs and Walter Gschwendtne, who landed near Constanta, Romania, having travelled 1,513 miles.
A German balloon piloted by Wilhelm Eimers and Ullrich Seel landed in second place, in Moldova, having travelled 1,438 miles.