Ralph Eschborn and his sons Eric and Alex, all of Pennsylvania, are members of the “Big 10 Inch” team that clinched the previous Guinness World Record of 4,623 feet, set Nov. 1, 2009, just after last year’s Moab Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival at the old airport runway near Ken’s Lake.
Ralph Eschborn said he and the other team members were encouraged by last year’s performance. The area’s higher altitude and drier air were seen as major contributing factors, he said.
“But the weather was just too cold in late October and early November,” he said.
Confident that higher temperatures in early fall would result in even longer launching distances, the team made a special September trip to Moab to take advantage of warmer weather.
After hauling their 90-foot compressed air cannon and other equipment across the country, team members spent several days in the Moab area last week carrying out their quest. They set up their cannon, which can fire pumpkins at speeds of up to 700 mph, just off the La Sal Mountain Loop Road a couple miles south of the turnoff to Ken’s Lake, and aimed it northeast across an empty flat and toward a rocky area southeast of the lake.
Keeping an eye on local weather reports, the group decided not to launch at all on Wednesday, Sept. 8, and instead waited until the following afternoon, when conditions turned out to be ideal, with sunny skies, 80 degree temperatures, and a bit of a tail wind.
The group uses La Estrella variety pumpkins, which are noteworthy for their roundness as well as their relatively tough outer skin, Ralph Eschborn said.
“Most other types of pumpkins would simply be blown to pieces when they leave the barrel,” he said, adding that record rules require that each pumpkin weigh between 8 and 10 pounds. The group brought a dozen pumpkins with them all the way from Pennsylvania, and had them weighed at a local meat shop and marked with a black felt-tip pen.
Throughout the day Thursday, Ralph Eschborn had given each of the gourds a light pre-launch ritual bath of Victory Hop Devil Ale before placing them inside the barrel, ratcheting it shut with heavy duty nuts and bolts, and firing up the generator. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes or so, the air tanks were filled with a pressure of approximately 300 pounds per square inch. Then, after a countdown, the lever was pulled, and with a loud whoosh, each pumpkin was blasted skyward.
Down range, spotters stayed alert, both to avoid being hit and to accurately mark where each pumpkin struck the ground.
The so-called worst pumpkin of the lot was the first one, fired as a test shot.
Using hand-held GPS devices and knowing that the dirt road they were standing on was roughly one mile away from the cannon, the team members and volunteers quickly knew the day’s outlook was promising.
In fact, team members said that all nine pumpkins shot off last Thursday ended up traveling at least 4,600 feet, meaning that all of them probably beat the previous world record.
However, only the two farthest shots were measured exactly. The spotters had marked each of the impact areas with stakes, and surveyors went out to the location the following afternoon to verify the top two distances.
Using electronic surveying equipment, local surveyor Mike Keogh of Keogh Land Surveying, accompanied by Robert Norman, verified the distances of the two farthest shots Friday afternoon, Sept. 10. They measured from a point immediately below the end of the barrel to the spot where the pumpkin first struck the ground.
According to Keogh, the first pumpkin he measured traveled 5,400 feet, 3 inches, and the second one traveled 5,545 feet, 5 inches. Those two pumpkins were the third and fourth shots fired overall, according to Alex Eschborn.
“We actually knew which pumpkin was the best, and we used that for our fourth shot,” he said. “It was probably one of the top five pumpkins we’ve ever seen, in terms of size and shape. You want them to be as round as possible. They cannot be modified or adulterated in any way. The only thing you can do is cut the stem off, and you want to do that as close to the pumpkin as you can.”
After the surveyors verified the measurements, team members cheered as they sipped victory beers and posed for photos.
“There’s quite a bit of science involved,” said Alex Eschborn, adding that once the group appeared to “max out” with regard to mechanical physics of the air cannon itself, they started to look for other ways to increase distance. “Interestingly, both agriculture and weather play a large role.”
He said that only the roundest and firmest pumpkins are suitable for use, and that weather can be crucial.
“The warmer the weather, the higher the speed of sound,” he said, noting that the pumpkins tend to slow down as they approach the sound barrier. “When the air is warmer, the pumpkins can be launched faster without hitting Mach 1.”
Smiling with satisfaction, Alex said he realizes others may eventually break the Big 10 Inch distance record.
“But we’ll always be the first to hit the mile mark,” he said.
“Well, now I’ve got to go back to my real job,” Ralph Eschborn said with a sigh, as he began the task of dismantling the cannon and getting it ready to transport home. He works as a wastewater engineer in Chadds Ford, Pa.
Nevertheless, Ralph said that he and other Big 10 Inch team members will soon be returning to Moab to take part in this year’s Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 30. The annual event is organized and sponsored by the local Youth Garden Project, which has also been growing some pumpkins especially for Eschborn’s team to launch.
Ralph Eschborn said although they don’t plan on setting any new records next month, they hope to wow attendees with a few 4,000-foot launches.
“We might even see if we can punch through the doors of an old junk car or truck,” he said with a laugh. “That’s always a crowd-pleaser.”