Scarlett Saunders’ Altitude Record

The wind picks up and whips around two figures perched on a trailer loaded with gear in an otherwise deserted roadhouse motel car park. Scarlett Saunders replicates flicking burner switches and recites emergency procedures checklists out loud, whilst Ronald, her mentor, listens and nods approvingly. 

“Pilot light goes out, try built-in whisper (ignitor) – if that doesn’t work, crack the cow burner, release a bit of gas, try cross lighting, and, if that doesn’t work, use back up striker.”

Scarlett’s grown up with hot air balloons – her father and two older brothers are Australian industry legends. She is quiet and understated, unlike her brothers, but, having grown up with ballooning the primary family business, even as a young pilot with just twenty hours PIC, she’s more qualified than most when it comes to achieving extremes in the ballooning sector.

Conditions lined up in winter last year, at a time when most balloon pilots are scouring the weather at ridiculous hours of the morning for opportunities to gain air-time. Things get tough in the quiet months – a sentiment to which fixed-wing pilots can also relate. When it was suggested that Scarlett should attempt the Women’s’ standing balloon altitude record before new Class E airspace restrictions kicked in, it was met with interest on the parts of all involved. An expedition was planned, and Scarlett, in her own reserved way, was excited.

The big day really begins 24 hours before the flight, when Scarlett and two other girls set out from Yarra Glen to Deniliquin, crossing the border into NSW. Here, preparations included plugging in the tank warmers (leaving two cold to ascertain which would perform better at altitude during flight) and getting familiar with the oxygen system she’d be using for the first time – a sophisticated, though easy-to-use device which would automatically activate the supply of pure oxygen a conservative 5000ft before she’d need it. Though the previous record stood at just under 10000ft, Scarlett was planning to venture another 13000ft further into hypoxia territory.

Scarlett’s aircraft for the episode is a charming, sky blue 77 Kavanagh balloon – the basket not much bigger than a square metre! Just enough room for a girl, her instruments and four 80ltr LPG gas tanks.

A pre-dawn, hour-long drive in darkness, a muesli bar for breakfast, and decisions are made concerning a launch point. Inflations commence. Before long, everyone is set for action, and the balloons are ready to depart. Scarlett takes a bit of comfort from the fact that Ronald is flying nearby in his balloon, planning to break a few records of his own!

Ascending takes no time at all – straight up at 1000ft per minute – although she quickly encounters difficulty changing tanks due to a pesky regulator getting in the way. Following some nervous, harried contact with ground (predominately a concerned Dad and brother pattering all manner of well-intentioned suggestions), she manages to unscrew the valves, switch tanks and carry on climbing.

At 23,700ft, Scarlett finally arrests her ascent. This is, by far, the highest altitude a woman has ever sent a hot air balloon in Australia, ever. Up here, more than 7km above the ground, with jet streams, commercial airliners and – well, not much else really – it’s clear as crystal glass and a balmy -7.3 degrees celsius. A minute to take stock of her extraordinary surroundings – not to mention the all-important snap of her calibrated altimeter – and it’s time to head back down… the adventure by no means at an end.

Scarlett was aware her burners were likely to extinguish at some point – due to the complications of flying at such an altitude. Until that time comes, however, the psychological impacts of trying to re-light your only source of sustained buoyancy in a balloon suspended some tens of thousands of feet above the ground are difficult to foretell. To combat her burners freezing over, Scarlett’s craft is equipped with a Cameron liquid fire release system – even so, at around 15000ft she is found repeatedly, desperately attempting to re-light the pilot flame with a striker. Though the balloon maintains a steady and controlled descent without much additional input, it’s an extended period of time before Scarlett is at an altitude that allows her to breath easy and complete her flight under normal conditions. Finally, she’s able to abandon the oxygen mask, stow her gear and prepare for landing – the final task.

Though she was only airborne a little more than an hour Scarlett found, as she approached, the wind had picked up quite a bit, coaxing brisk, 12-15 knot conditions on the ground. Even so, she manages a 30 mtr drag and layover landing with pomp, her small basket spinning 180 degrees and coming to rest in the angles of an irrigation channel somewhere west of Deni. She emerges unscathed, dusts herself off and begins packing up her balloon, patiently waiting for her retrieval party to arrive.

Photo by Kiff Saunders

Scarlett’s efforts were officially ratified and recognised late in 2019, her Dad accepting the plaque at an Australian Ballooning Federation AGM on her behalf, since, at the time, she was aboard a plane returning from Schoolies. At the time of publishing, there is still yet to be an Australian Women’s National Distance or Duration record set.

AX Female Australian Records – Altitude

AX77,228m (23,714 ft)Scarlett Saunders4 Jul 2019

First published in Issue 267 Airnews Magazine, Autumn 2020

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