Big Air

Soaring over four continents, three oceans, and assorted hostile nations aboard a high-tech gondola, Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Brian Jones of England this year became the first men to circle the world by hot-air balloon. Here is their diary—the unforgettable highs, the lows, and the humdrum routine experienced by the unlikely duo who vowed to boldly g

Oct 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Piccard, March 19, 35,300 feet over the Atlantic
We went out over the Atlantic like a rocket. At 0500 Greenwich time on March 19 we were doing 80 knots, heading for Africa. The cold was intense; outside the capsule the temperature was 50 below zero Celsius, and inside it was minus two. One of our heaters had failed completely, and the other pilot light had been reduced by ice to a pathetic flame an inch high.

On the ground things really were going crazy. Control started to send us more of the Internet messages that were coming in from all over the world, especially America. What we did not know at the time was that Andy Elson had been foolish enough to go on television in the UK and claim that, having done all the fuel calculations, he knew we were not going to make the coast of Africa.


Jones, March 20, 36,000 feet over the west coast of Africa
As the balloon sprinted toward the finishing line, we both put on clean clothes, to look smart on the video we planned to make, and sat in the cockpit counting the degrees of longitude downward.

But the flight was not over yet. As ever, our ground team was working away on our behalf. They didn't want us to land in Mali or Mauritania: Apart from the leopards mentioned by Alan, there were apparently mines scattered all over the place. The next country available was Algeria, but the Algerians weren't very keen to have us and would not guarantee our safety. Next came Libya—and Bertrand really wanted to land there, because he'd heard that Gadhafi has a 200-strong, all-female team of bodyguards.

I began to feel a bit stupid, because ever since Puerto Rico I'd been saying in faxes and interviews that I wasn't sure if we had enough fuel to reach the African coast—and suddenly here we were, proposing to carry on for several thousand kilometers. But both of us had a feeling of invincibility: We could do whatever we bloody well wanted.


Piccard, March 20, 36,000 feet over Libya
My last night at the controls was the most wonderful of the flight. A little crescent of new moon rose ahead of us. I had the impression that I had left the cockpit and was flying among the stars.


Jones, March 21, 32,000 feet over the Libya/Egypt border
We started our descent from 32,000 feet as we crossed the border from Libya into Egypt, our plan being to come gently down at about 300 feet per minute, progressively losing speed. But it turned out that Luc and Pierre's windspeed forecast was quite wrong, and we continued to travel much too fast. Just as I was thinking we must still be about 150 feet up, I glanced down through the curved glass of the front hatch and saw stones. They looked extremely close. I was wondering, "Can convex glass have a magnifying effect?" when Bertrand, who was watching through the rear hatch, shouted, "Brian—look out! We're going to hit!" Immediately I switched on full burners. Seconds later came an almighty BANG as we hit the ground. We were down for no more than a second. Up we went again, bouncing straight to 300 feet, where another blast from the burners stabilized us.

Over the radio came Alan's cynical voice, awarding us five out of ten for that attempt at touchdown. Bertrand climbed out the hatch and saw, a mile or two ahead, a flat plateau that looked perfect for landing. "Give it five minutes," he advised. "Then we'll be over a suitable area."

This time there was hardly any impact, and after one tiny bounce we finally came to earth. The gondola slid along on its belly for a few yards and stopped. For a moment we looked at each other, speechless with the realization that we were safe. The flight was over, and we were surrounded by utter silence.

Then Bertrand cried, "Check the time! Check the time!" It was a few seconds after 0600. Quickly I retrieved the laptop, which had shot off the desk and flown across the cabin, and at 0601 faxed to control: "The Eagle has landed. All OK. Bloody good. B."


Piccard, March 21, in the Egyptian desert
Grabbing the video camera, I opened the rear hatch and scrambled outside to film the scene before the balloon collapsed. I was almost overcome by emotion—and out of breath from the unaccustomed exercise. The envelope was leaning at an angle of maybe 45 degrees, with wind already entering its mouth and making the Mylar billow. While I filmed, I kept talking—to no one in particular, to heaven perhaps—saying, "This is fabulous! Thank you! Thank you!" Then the Breitling plane came by on a really low pass and I filmed that too, holding the camera in my right hand, waving with my left.

Over the radio the pilot told us that he had to go back to Dakhla to refuel but would send another plane to rescue us. With the planes gone we were left in silence, except for the envelope rustling in the breeze. Then, as the surface of the desert warmed up, the wind began to rise and the balloon became fully inflated by air blowing into its mouth. Not wanting to lose the envelope—now an important piece of history—we decided to try bringing it down, so we put back the safety pins into the release mechanism and blew open one corner after another to release the flying cables, one by one.

With the envelope down, I sat with my back against the keel of the gondola, letting sand run through my fingers, reflecting that we had flown over deserts for days and now were safely back, in physical contact with one of those desolate wastes. I could have stayed there for a long time.

Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard's Around the World in 20 Days (John Wiley & Sons) will be published in November.

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