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 go where no moist towelette had gone before.

Outside

Outside    

On March 1, 1999, as their $2 million Breitling Orbiter 3 helium-filled, propane-fueled hot-air balloon lifted off from Château d'Oex, Switzerland, 41-year-old Bertrand Piccard and 52-year-old Brian Jones were just two more adventurers chasing a a century-old dream: to be the first to float all the way around the earth. Richard Branson, Steve Fossett, and Per Lindstrand had recently tried and failed, and just 12 days before the Orbiter 3's launch, Andy Elson had begun his own doomed global attempt. Piccard and Jones, who between them had logged hundreds of hours at 30,000 feet, ate, drank, and slept in their cramped, minivan-size gondola, communicating with their 15-member ground crew via solar-powered fax and satellite telephone. Along the way they came close to crash-landing in the Pacific and were almost snuffed out by a carbon monoxide leak. But 20 harrowing days after takeoff, the indomitably cheerful Piccard and Jones landed in the Egyptian desert, having successfully weathered 28,566 miles of piercing winds, hygiene dilemmas, and high anxiety. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from their book, Around the World in 20 Days (to be published in November by John Wiley & Sons), Jones and Piccard tell their story.

Bertrand Piccard, March 1, four hours before launch, Château d'Oex, Switzerland
According to the weather forecast, the morning of March 1, 1999, should have been fine. But before dawn the valley that cradles Château d'Oex was full of mist, and the sky was overcast. In the hotel, Brian and I were both wide awake by 5 a.m., well aware that for the past 20 hours technicians had been working out on the launch field, a few hundred yards away, making the balloon ready for takeoff. After five years of preparation, of false starts and dashed hopes, the moment of truth was upon us.

I had woken with a start, adrenaline already pumping, and immediately thought, What's happening on the field? I grabbed the phone, called our flight director, Alan Noble, on his mobile, and asked, "How's it going?"

"Bertrand," he replied. "You should be asleep. We don't need you for two hours."

"Alan!" I cried. "I can't possibly sleep. I'm coming now."

Immediately I felt a complete change in the physiology of my body. No more relaxation or trying to rest. I was 100 percent alert, ready to go. It was still dark, and when I went downstairs there was nobody in the restaurant except Brian, his wife, and one waitress who had got up early to look after us. Brian ate a croissant, but I couldn't manage one, because I had no saliva. Instead I had some muesli and tea. I was in such a state of nerves that when I went back to my room to brush my teeth and pick up my bag, I started to get stomach contractions and threw up. I've never been so afraid.

This likely would be my last chance for a shot at flying around the world. My last two attempts had failed—one after six hours, one after nine days—and our sponsor, the Breitling watch company, had told us that there would be no Orbiter 4. Our most dangerous rival, Virgin tycoon Richard Branson, had been forced to ditch his balloon in the sea near Hawaii the previous December. This left us with only one immediate competitor, Englishman Andy Elson, a good friend who had flown with me aboard Orbiter 2. He and his partner, Colin Prescot, had taken off two weeks before us from Almería, in Spain. By now they were somewhere over India, thousands of miles ahead.

 

Brian Jones, March 1, preflight countdown
At 6 a.m. we drove the short distance to the launch field, passing quickly through the deserted streets of the village. The temperature was a couple of degrees below zero, and because of the mist we could see neither the stars nor the tops of the surrounding mountains, which rose three or four thousand feet above us. Then, as we turned onto the main road, our balloon came into view.

The sight stopped us dead. In a blaze of arc lights, the slender, towering envelope was gleaming brilliant silver against a black sky. One hundred and seventy feet high—tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, more than half the height of the Statue of Liberty—it rose like a colossal exclamation mark, emphasizing the vast scale of our undertaking. Escaping helium eddied round it in white clouds, like dry ice. At its base, the chunky horizontal cylinder of the gondola, painted bright red, was partially hidden by the double row of titanium fuel tanks arranged along each side. Men were swarming round it, some holding ropes, others manipulating hoses. The volume of the envelope—the balloon itself—was 650,000 cubic feet, and the whole assembly, including the gondola and fuel, weighed 9.2 tons. This was the majestic giant in which we were going to commit ourselves to the sky.

As we climbed headfirst through the rear hatch, the wind was becoming more boisterous. High above us the silver Mylar of the envelope was crackling as if someone were wrapping a gigantic turkey in tinfoil, and the gondola heaved and tugged against its ropes. Inside, we were getting thrown about as we struggled to complete our preflight checks:

"VHF radios."

"On."

"Altimeter pressure."

"Set."

"Life-support system."

"On."

Several thousand spectators crowded close, shouting with excitement, unaware of the danger they were in. If the balloon had split or been blown over, several of them might have been injured as the heavy fabric collapsed on them. Any one of our 32 propane tanks could have ruptured and exploded, and there would have been an instant, devastating fireball.

To avoid such a disaster, Alan abruptly cut the main tether with his Swiss Army knife, and we took off with a fair old jerk.

Very soon, only a thousand feet up, we hit an inversion layer—the level at which cold air close to the ground meets warmer air above. The balloon came up against the invisible barrier and stopped climbing. In open country that would not have mattered: The envelope would gradually have heated with the sun, and we would have started upward again. But here in the Alps, delay was potentially dangerous, because if we'd remained at the same level, we would have started to drift sideways and might have been carried into the mountains.

One way of restarting a climb is to shed weight, so Bertrand called, "One bag of sand!" and I started pouring the first 33 pounds of ballast down through a light fabric tube designed to send the sand clear of the capsule and spread it safely. A moment later he shouted, "Look out—I'm going to burn!" Blue flames roared six feet up into the hot-air cone, warming the helium in the gas cell above. The balloon was climbing. We looked at each other and grinned. We were on our way.

   

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