Ballooning: The Legend of Steve the Adventurer

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Ballooning: The Legend of Steve the Adventurer
By Todd Balf

On the surrealness scale, it was off the charts: a 50-year-old Chicago securities dealer in the gondola of a hot-air balloon that he'd flown only once before, readying for takeoff at 3 A.M. from the infield of Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea. The stadium klieg lights were blaring, a full moon was overhead, and the South Korean navy and air force stood ready, willing, and able to track his flight as he ascended to an altitude of 14,000 feet over the Sea of Japan. "I'm still amazed we pulled that off," says Steve Fossett, the adventure addict who floated into worldwide headlines last February after setting a new distance record for ballooning (5,432 miles) and becoming the first balloonist to fly solo across the Pacific. Exactly how, as a private citizen, he rallied the South Korean troops for his launch is still something of a mystery, but how Fossett got into ballooning is pretty straightforward. Four years ago, he says, he looked at marathon ballooning and saw a sport whose big-time records were waiting to be smashed. In the flick of a gold card he bought a top-of-the-line Cameron Roziere balloon, put together a world-class crew of engineers and meteorologists, and learned what to do with it all during a transatlantic flight he made last August. If the whole thing sounds rather unlikely, well, thus have been the last few years of Fossett's life. The Pacific balloon voyage is only the latest and most audacious installment in an adventure and "personal achievement" spree that has seen Fossett swim the English Channel, climb six of the vaunted Seven Summits, compete in Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race, smash three solo ocean-racing world records in his 60-foot trimaran, bag the three highest peaks on Greenland, and race a sports car in the 24 Hours of LeMans. "I like a lot of sports," says Fossett, "but ballooning and ocean racing are probably the only ones where I can do something nobody has done before." To that end, Fossett says he'll come up with a new balloon project later this year. In the meantime, he'll attempt to recross the Pacific next month when he pilots his trimaran from Los Angeles to Hawaii in the Transpac sailboat race.

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