Dispatches, February 1998
The Borax Desert around Mojave, California, is the hallowed ground of experimental aviation, a place where sonic booms are considered white noise and where itchy throttle-jockeys nurse Yeager-sized dreams. Here, in an old airport hangar, 59-year-old pilot Dick Rutan spent the early winter working out the bugs in a carbon-fiber capsule that he hopes will put him — once again — in the annals of aeronautics.
Twelve years ago, Rutan became international flavor-of-the-month when he flew nonstop around the world in a custom airplane dubbed the Voyager. Any day now, depending on global weather conditions, Rutan and copilot David Melton plan to attach a Rozier envelope to their pressurized capsule, ascend to 36,000 feet from their Albuquerque launch site, and hitch onto the jet stream east for 20,000 miles, becoming the first men to achieve a feat that's captivated adventurers since Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg: circumnavigating the planet by balloon. "It's the last plum," Rutan says in a can-do staccato. "And I aim to pluck it — if the weather cooperates, if our equipment holds up, and if we can steer clear of countries we're mad at."
Those are enormous ifs, of course, but then distance ballooning is a pursuit that perpetually hangs on hypotheticals. Anything from a defective 50-cent clamp to an errant 747 could spell doom for Rutan's $1 million balloon, officially called the Global Hilton after his principal backer, hotel magnate Barron Hilton. Then again, someone else could pull off the feat before Rutan even gets off the ground. With Anheuser-Busch having posted a $1 million reward last fall for the first team to circle the globe, the sport's loftiest grail is more alluring than ever. As we went to press, three other crews were eyeing the weather in preparation for round-the-world attempts: Steve Fossett, the Chicago securities trader whose unsuccessful attempt last year nonetheless landed him world records for both duration and distance; Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist and veteran distance balloonist backed by the Breitling watch company; and Kevin Uliassi, an Arizona engineer who's been quietly planning a global try for a decade. Meanwhile, Virgin Records mogul Richard Branson aborted his third global attempt in early December when his partially inflated envelope inexplicably shot into the Moroccan sky — sans crew.
Branson's debacle means one less worry for Rutan, who admits he's in this game for one thing only. "Remember," he says, "the second guy who makes it will be rewarded with eternal obscurity." While no one is placing bets ("You can't handicap in this sport — it's all just wild guesses," says noted British balloon manufacturer Donald Cameron), the Global Hilton has been viewed as a serious contender from the start. The project's most conspicuous asset is Rutan himself, a decorated pilot who flew 325 combat missions in Vietnam. Although he earned his balloon certification just three years ago, Rutan is the only contender who can fairly say he's experienced all 20,000 miles of the journey. "In terms of navigation, reading weather and wind, this flight and Voyager are really quite similar," argues Rutan, who plans to be aloft about two weeks, hugging the upper edge of the troposphere, where the jet stream winds approach speeds of 200 miles per hour.
And should Rutan succeed, what would be left for him in a world devoid of aviation plums? "I'd like to go to Proxima Centauri," he says. "It's our closest star, and I think there may be inhabitable planets."