The Circumnavigation of the Earth by Balloon

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The Circumnavigation of the Earth by Balloon


On March 21, 1999, Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard and English balloon instructor Brian Jones became the first team to fly around the world by balloon, nonstop and without refueling, setting records for distance and duration, and winning a million-dollar purse staked by Anheuser-Busch. The three-week adventure, beginning in Switzerland and ending in Egypt, was an accomplishment in the history of exploration. Using new balloon designs and taking advantage of jet-stream developments, the team ended a 20-year quest and set a new milestone in the 200-year history of ballooning.


The history of ballooning began in 1783 with a 25-minute ride at 3,000 feet (914 meters) above the city of Paris. In the years that followed, balloons developed in size and structure, and greater distances of flight and altitudes were achieved. In 1978 a three-man crew aboard the Double Eagle II, became the first to cross the Atlantic by balloon, from Presque Isle, Maine, to Miserey, France. The quest to push the limit of the balloon had begun.

In 1980 a father and son piloted their balloon, the Kitty Hawk, from Fort Baker, California, to Quebec in four days, becoming the first to cross a continent by balloon. In 1981 four crew members aboard the Double Eagle V crossed the Pacific from Nagashima, Japan, to Covelo, California, a trip taking just over 84 hours. In 1984 a lone pilot in the Rosie O'Grady launched from Caribou, Maine, and crossed the Atlantic, landing in Savona, Italy. This pilot's second solo effort in 1997, aboard the Solo Spirit,set an endurance record of six days, two hours, and 44 minutes, as well as a distance record of 10,361 miles (16,674 km), travelling from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sultanpur, India. During a third effort in 1998, aboard the Solo Spirit II, the same pilot further increased the balloon distance record by travelling from Mendoza, Argentina, to a spot 500 miles (805 km) off the coast of Australia, where he was forced to land after his balloon ruptured in a thunderstorm. The total distance of this trip was 14,236 miles (22,911 km). These events, especially attempts at global circumnavigation during the last 20 years, set the stage for Jones and Piccard's record-setting flight in their balloon the Breitling Orbiter 3.

Two failed attempts by Piccard preceded the Breitling Orbiter 3 voyage. In 1997, just six hours into the flight, Piccard was forced to land when a loose clip caused fuel to leak into the gondola. The following year, aboard the Breitling Orbiter 2, Piccard flew from Switzerland to Myanmar, where the Chinese government refused to allow the balloon into its airspace. In preparation for a third attempt, Swiss diplomats worked with the Chinese to make the trip possible.

New designs made the trip possible as well. The 10-ton Breitling Orbiter 3 was designed to hold 15% more helium than its predecessor. Orbiter 2 had used an experimental kerosene fuel that proved inefficient, prompting a switch to propane for Orbiter 3. Also, due to the large consumption of kerosene by Orbiter 2 to maintain altitude, the balloon was redesigned with solar-powered fans to keep the helium balloon cool in the day. Solar panels, suspended below the gondola, charged five lead batteries and supplied energy for equipment on board. Propane burners provided the heated air needed to keep the balloon aloft; the burners were turned on at night. In case of an emergency, the lower part of the balloon was detachable, leaving the remaining upper half attached and functioning as a parachute. The gondola in which Piccard and Jones lived was equipped with a toilet, writing desks, sleeping bunks, satellite telephones, and a fax machine.

The balloon, with all of these improvements, was ready for the journey by the end of November 1998. Circumstances, however, were far from ideal. Iraq, possibly in the flight path, was again under NATO air attack. In addition, because a British balloon had recently drifted over forbidden parts of China, the Chinese government halted Jones and Piccard's flight plans. By the time Swiss diplomats had received permission for the team to fly over China, the optimal round-the-world-ballooning season was virtually over. The wait stretched over the winter months and finally on March 1, 1999, the team was ready to take off.


Piccard and Jones began their journey aboard the Breitling 3 in the Swiss village of Chateaud'Oex, ascending into the morning air amid the cheers of thousands of spectators. During that first day of flight Piccard and Jones had beautiful views of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. They enjoyed a meal of emu steaks, rice, and vegetables, reheated in plastic bags that evening. The two piloted the balloon in rotating eight-hour shifts; while one piloted, the other slept. The rest of the time was spent preparing food and planning the flight.

On the second day they passed Italy, then flew south and west over Mauritania to catch the jet stream eastward. By the fifth day they were over Libya. With the assistance of their flight team back in Switzerland, they raised and lowered their altitude to ride the optimum jet streams at the right speeds so that their path eastward was as controlled and on schedule as possible. This was be crucial, especially as they neared China, since the Chinese government had agreed to let the team fly through Chinese airspace, but only south of the 26th parallel. The Breitling 3 drifted toward southern Egypt, over Sudan, Saudi Arabia, then further eastward over India and Bangladesh.

On the ninth day, Piccard and Jones determined that they were following the narrow course that would take them over the approved path designated by the Chinese government. Once over China, however, the Breitling 3 drifted to within 25 miles (40 km) of the forbidden 26th parallel. The Chinese government radioed the team and asked them to prepare to land. Suddenly, a wind blew them away from this sensitive area—a close call indeed. The balloon sped on toward the next hurdle, the Pacific Ocean, a 10,000-mile (16,093 km) expanse of water.

Using computer models to predict when and where optimum jet streams would develop, the control center in Geneva instructed Piccard and Jones to let themselves be pushed to the equator, where a jet stream was expected to develop in a few days. One drawback of flying so close to the equator, though, was that the balloon's aluminum covering blocked the satellite signal being broadcast many miles directly above. As a result, Piccard and Jones temporarily lost contact with the control center in Geneva.

After six days of drifting lazily over the Pacific, the powerful jet stream that had been predicted finally materialized. The Breitling 3 was propelled toward Mexico at 115 miles per hour (186 kph). Unfortunately, the team was at such a high altitude that the cold forced their propane burners to use more fuel than planned. Suddenly, their speed dropped, they somehow lost the jet stream, and began drifting southeast toward Venezuela. Morale aboard the balloon fell. In a last effort to salvage the trip, Piccard and Jones decided to ascend as high as 35,000 feet (10,668 m) to catch a jet stream that the control center indicated was there. Indeed, after reaching that altitude the direction of flight corrected and speed eventually increased. After passing over Jamaica, the balloon was back on course. At this point, 17 days into the adventure, only four of the original 32 fuel tanks remained. Despite concern that they lacked enough fuel to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Piccard and Jones decided to press on.

Halfway across the Atlantic, the balloon was being carried in the center of a jet stream at 105 miles an hour (169 kph). By sunrise on March 20th, the team was only hours away from Mauritania, the point from which they began their journey eastward. They flew over Mauritania on March 21st, after a total of 19 days, 21 hours, and 47 minutes of flight. The Breitling Orbiter 3 landed in Egypt, bringing an end to their journey. They had flown 26,050 miles (41,923 km).

The successful balloon circumnavigation by Piccard and Jones stands as an impressive technological accomplishment and an inspiring testament to human will. However, while they drifted high above the world and its problems, they had cause for serious reflection. The impact of their adventure is perhaps best expressed in the words of Piccard: "During our three-week flight, protected by our high-tech cocoon, we have flown over millions of people suffering on this Earth, which we were looking at with such admiration. Why are we so lucky? At this moment it occurs to me that we could use the largest portion of the Budweiser Cup million-dollar prize to create a humanitarian foundation, the Winds of Hope, to promote respect for man and nature."


Further Reading


Piccard, Bertrand. Around the World in 20 Days: The Story of Our History-Making Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.


Nadya, Labi. "Around the World in 20 Days." Time 153, No. 12 (March 29, 1999): 44-7.

Piccard, Bertrand. "Around at Last!" National Geographic196, No. 3 (September 1999): 30-51.

Scott, Phil. "The Balloon That Flew Round the World."Scientific American 281, No. 5 (November 1999): 111-13.

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The Circumnavigation of the Earth by Balloon