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

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.

   
 

Piccard, March 1, 21,000 feet over the Swiss Alps
As we climbed away from Château d'Oex, among the snowy mountains, we passed through another inversion layer and the balloon suddenly seemed to shoot skyward. We'd been aiming for 200 feet per minute, but the variometer showed that our rate of climb was six times that fast. An ascent as rapid as that could cause the envelope to burst, as the helium in the gas cell expanded with heat from the sun and diminishing atmospheric pressure.

"We need to vent," I said. Swiveling in the right-hand pilot's seat, I reached down behind me to operate the pneumatic system that controlled the valves that released helium from the top of the envelope. Our natural inclination was to retain as much helium as possible, because we had no reserve supply. But we soon found that one discharge was not enough. We had to vent again and again before we brought our climb under control.

We both kept thinking uneasily of other balloons that had burst in similar circumstances. The most recent had been the Global Hilton, in January 1998; pilots Dick Rutan and Dave Melton both managed to escape by parachute, which was more than could be said of Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier 200 years earlier: Rapidly expanding hydrogen burst his envelope, came in contact with smoldering straw in the burner, blew up, and killed the inventor.

 

Jones, March 1, 22,310 feet over Italy
Anyone with a tendency to claustrophobia would have been horrified by the dimensions of the capsule into which we had sealed ourselves for the duration. The gondola was in essence a short tube with rounded ends, 16 feet from nose to tail and seven feet in diameter. All its inside surfaces were padded with knobby white fireproof foam insulating material to cut down noise and condensation. The biggest single space was the cockpit at the front, where there was just enough room for both pilots to sit side-by-side facing two 12-inch portholes and an instrument panel.

Immediately behind the right-hand seat was a tiny kitchen shelf, no more than two feet square, with a washbasin set in its working surface, and a little water heater mounted on the bulkhead. The central corridor, about two feet wide, was just high enough to allow us to stand upright. On the port side of the corridor was the bunk, seven feet long but only two feet wide. When the curtain was drawn to shut the bunk off from the passage, the occupant was enclosed in a space not much bigger than a coffin.

Yet if our living conditions were fairly basic, our equipment was as high-tech as money could buy. Electric power came from 20 solar panels, each three feet wide and eighteen inches tall, trailing below us on a long line in an array like a four-sided kite, so that no matter what heading the balloon was on, some of them were always facing the sun. The moment the sun came over the horizon every morning—bang!—they sprang to life instantly, and we could see the charge coming through. Two radar transponders automatically gave our identity, altitude, and position to air traffic control centers along the way. A global positioning system continuously gave us a readout of our altitude, position, and speed; for voice communication we had short-range and long-range radios and a satellite phone. But most of our exchanges with our ground team, stationed in the Geneva airport, were via satellite fax.

A regular pattern of life quickly developed. We each wanted eight hours' rest, and Bertrand, preferring to sleep while it was dark, would turn in during the early evening and sleep through the first part of the night. I would wake him a few hours before sunrise and then go to sleep myself until the middle of the day. In our domestic habits we were very gentlemanly: Whenever I got up, I would clear the bed and leave it ready for Bertrand, and vice versa. On one occasion he left a chocolate on my pillow. From the start we had a marvelously open relationship. He had always insisted on complete openness, and early in the flight he said, "Brian, if I do anything you don't like, you must say so. Or if I start to smell and have bad breath, for goodness' sake, tell me."

In matters of personal hygiene, we did try to take care. There was no question of having a shower, but when we got up or went to bed we would generally have a complete rub-down with wet wipes, and neither ever complained that the other was becoming noisome. There was practically no dust or dirt in the gondola; the few clothes we had with us remained remarkably clean.

The toilet was a pan with an airtight cover: Whenever we had something to dispose of, we would drop it in the plastic bag lining the bowl, seal the lid, close the top valve, and open the bottom valve, so that the pressure trapped in the toilet would blow the contents downward. We were fairly careful about where we dropped anything—but it was with some reluctance that we rejected the idea of attaching to each offering a label saying "Virgin Atlantic Airways."

 

Piccard, March 2, 20,400 feet over the Mediterranean
Our route was to first take us south to Morocco and then east over Africa, the Middle East, India, southern China, the Pacific, the United States, and the Atlantic Ocean. If all went well, we would land somewhere in northern Africa in about 20 days.

For as long as we were heading south we had 24 hours between sunsets; but when we turned east and started traveling at 100 knots, there were only 20 hours between one sunset and the next. With eight hours' sleep apiece, we had only four hours together, and it seemed a very short time.

By talking together all the time, we got rid of the need to have one chief and one person obeying orders. In the end, I think, we were three. There was Brian, there was myself, and there was Both of Us—and Both of Us was the one who always did the right thing.

 

Jones, March 3, 17,700 feet over the Atlantic
Minor technical problems began to plague us. Our warning system that monitored the cabin air set off an alarm when it began to show a sulfur dioxide content of 0.4 parts per million. I thought the gas might have been given off by the backup lithium batteries we were carrying, but because I wasn't sure, I faxed our electronics specialist, Kieran Sturrock, who suggested passing our handheld detector over them one by one.

In the end the episode degenerated into farce: We waved the detector around over the batteries and couldn't find anything. We began to think that something in our human wind might be setting it off, so we faxed down and asked, "Could it be the fact that we were farting in bed that set it off?" And the answer was, "Possibly." In self-defense, I felt bound to point out that "it was Bertrand in the bunk at the time of the alarm. Mine are distinctly Eau de Givenchy."

Piccard, March 4, 18,400 feet over Mauritania
When I took over from Brian, before dawn, the view was fantastic, with the moon shining on the Sahara and a million stars glittering above. Several times I doused the cockpit lights so that the stars would show up more brightly. I realized we were following the old route of the L'Aéropostale, the first commercial airline that delivered the mail, which used to fly from Paris, via Toulouse, to Dakar in Senegal and on across the South Atlantic to Brazil. Those pilots—Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, and above all Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—were the real pioneers of commercial flying, and Saint-Exupéry wrote his book The Little Prince about the very places we were passing over. Gazing at the night sky I wondered, "Which of all those millions is the star of the Little Prince?"

As the sun came up, light revealed the spectacular dark red colors of the desert. Somebody had warned us how boring it would be to fly over the Sahara, but the reality was quite the opposite. The light was alive, the sand was alive. I spent hours staring at the desert, feeling its strangeness.

 

Jones, March 4, 10,000 feet over Mauritania
Unlike the main battery of 28 propane cylinders, our four auxiliary tanks had no automatic dropping mechanism, and the only way to release them was to go outside the gondola and cut them free. Hence the need for an EVA, or extravehicular activity. Clearly it must take place over a totally remote area, where the falling tanks couldn't do any damage.

The idea of an EVA was exciting, and as we prepared for it, letting the balloon descend gently to 10,000 feet, our adrenaline was flowing. But when we opened the top hatch and climbed out, we found it was lovely just to sit out in the fresh air on top of the gondola, with the feeling of being completely still. We could look straight down through two miles of air to the sandy wilderness below. Above us the sky was cloudless, and below us an infinity of sand and rock stretched away as far as eye could see. With the burners shut down, there was not the slightest sound to spoil the silence. We'd also descended in order to deice. Some of it was already melting, and water was pouring down off the envelope, but any drips that fell on the surface of the propane tanks froze again immediately, and stalactites ten feet long were still dangling from the skirt, joining it to the gondola. Bertrand attacked the icicles with a fire ax. As he said, it was probably the first time that ice rained on the Sahara in several thousand years.

 

Fax from ground controller Sue Tatford, March 4
Good morning, boys. Sue here. Latest news on Andy Elson: flight time 15 days 22 hrs 44 mins so far. Alt. 18,000 feet, 19.06 N 112.12, east of Hainan, over South China Sea....

Just received a letter from Uday Saddam Hussein, son of the Iraqi leader. He says, "It is with great pleasure that we can take part in the success of this peaceful flight." He doesn't say you can't cross his country. But he adds, "Sorry we can't ensure the safety of the balloonists."

 

Jones, March 4, 24,000 feet over Algeria
So far our flight path had not been likely to cause any political difficulties; but now we were heading for Libya, and beyond it Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, any of which could cause problems. Our gravest concern was about Yemen. Our present track was taking us across a large prohibited zone of the country, outlined in red on the map. Our support team could see that we had little chance of circumnavigating it, and although our meteorologists, Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert, did their best to steer us round the edge of it, the wind would barely allow a big enough deviation.

It had never been part of our plan to fly over Yemen, and so we had no diplomatic clearance. This meant that controller Patrick Schelling had to negotiate from scratch. He made numerous calls to the San'a tower, asking for clearance. It took him some time to explain what was happening, because the man on duty had only broken English and kept asking, "What is the balloon's destination?" When Patrick replied, "It's going round the world," he repeated, "What is its destination? If you have flight plan, you must have destination." The man insisted that he himself could not give clearance, because he lacked the authority to do so. All Patrick could do was keep talking to him until he felt fairly sure that nobody was going to do the balloon any harm.

 

Piccard, March 7, 19,000 feet over Saudi Arabia
At 0230 Greenwich, Brian went to bed, and after a couple of hours I was rewarded by the sight of a magnificent sunrise over the Rub' al Khali desert. But before I had time to marvel at it, an astonishing fax came in from Brian's wife, Jo, informing us that Andy Elson and Colin Prescot, whose electrical systems had failed, were ditching 70 miles off the coast of Japan.

I was afraid for the two crewmen—both good friends of ours—but at the same time I felt immediately that the world's attention was focused on us, because now we were the only ones left in the race.

Two hours later a fax confirmed that the balloon had come down in the sea and that the crew had been rescued. Of course I was desperate to pass on the news to Brian, but I kept to our agreement that neither of us would wake the other unnecessarily, and when eventually he stuck his head out of the bunk curtain, I said, "Brian, I've got the most incredible news. What d'you think it is?"

Instantly he said, "Andy's down."

 

Piccard, March 8, 16,500 feet over India
Brian and I were together in the cockpit, and we suddenly realized we could see the peaks of the Himalayas, poking up through the clouds away to our left. They were probably 300 miles off, but we were so high that they made a stunning array along the northern horizon. We thought we could identify Everest, because one mountain stood out taller than all the rest around it.

Jones, March 11, 24,900 feet over Iwo Jima
People were watching our progress from all over the world, and excited e-mail messages of encouragement had started to pour into the Breitling Web site. One man was even planning to put up "a small armada of balloons" to meet us as we hit the West Coast of North America.

All at once, however, our circumstances changed, and our chances of a flight across North America vanished. In the control center our weatherman Luc announced a drastic alteration of plan. Rather than keeping us to the north, he and fellow meteorologist Pierre had decided to send us southward, far down over the Pacific, to pick up a jet stream forecast to form there in three days' time. The proposal was so startling that one of our controllers, Brian Smith, took Luc aside and asked to see this new jet stream on his laptop. When Luc said, "You don't understand—it doesn't exist yet, it'll be born three days from now," Brian turned pale.

 

Piccard, March 11, 28,000 feet over the Pacific
Faced by 8,000 miles of water, I picked up my pen and wrote: This is exactly my definition of adventure. Adventure is something out of the usual pattern, a point at which you cannot avoid confronting the unknown, so that you have to dig deep inside yourself to find the courage and resources to deal with what may lie ahead, and to succeed.

The prospect of going south was horrific—not least because Richard Branson had come to grief doing that very thing. Instead of heading straight east across the Pacific and hitting the coast of North America somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco, we were going even farther south than Branson had—a thousand miles south of Hawaii—and adding a couple of thousand miles to our journey. I had serious doubts and felt so depressed that I telephoned my wife, Michèle, and told her I thought we were going to fail because we didn't have enough fuel to fly so far and so slowly.

Luc immediately phoned me back, and I asked if he was truly confident about sending us south.

"Bertrand," he replied, "do you trust me? Yes or no?"

In that situation, I really felt it was better to say yes.

"Yes," I said.

"OK—so just do it! The situation's under control."

I hung up the phone and turned to my partner. "Brian," I said, "I have to admit, I feel a little afraid."

"Thank God!" he replied. "I've been wanting to tell you—I'm shit-scared, too!"

 

Jones, March 11, 28,000 feet over the Pacific
I kept remembering Steve Fossett, who crash-landed in the Coral Sea during his 1998 round-the-world attempt. After his balloon had been ruptured by violent winds and hail at 28,000 feet, he found himself hurtling downward. He turned his propane burners on full-power and lay down on his bunk, flat on his back, to minimize damage from the impact of hitting the water. That action almost certainly saved his life. The worst thing for me was thinking about what would happen if we ditched. What with the weight of the load frame and outriggers round the top of the capsule, and the titanium propane tanks, I thought we would almost certainly turn over if we came down in the sea and might never be able to escape from the capsule through either of the hatches.

If we had to parachute from that height—forget it. The chances of anyone finding us in time to save our lives were extremely remote, and even if an aircraft were to manage to locate us, there was no guarantee we would survive until a ship arrived.

At sunset I looked out of the porthole and saw these whacking great cumulonimbus clouds, any one of which might contain downdrafts and hail violent enough to destroy our envelope by ripping it to shreds. As dark came down, there was no way of telling if one lay on our route.

Added to everything else, I've always had a great fear of water.

 

Piccard, March 15, 32,000 feet over the Pacific
As usual, Brian woke me a few hours before dawn. He was holding a flashlight to his mouth, as if it were a microphone, and said, "Hello, Dr. Piccard. How do you feel about being the long-distance record holder for ballooning?"

During the night we had beaten Steve Fossett's record of 14,236 miles, made before he came down in the Coral Sea. The meteorolgists in Geneva were in ecstasy: They had brought off their incredible gamble of sending us so far south, and they were confident we would remain in the jet stream all the way to Africa. The press started to say that we were succeeding; we "just have the Atlantic left." In fact, we still had 8,000 miles to go.

 

Fax from Jacques Piccard, Bertrand's father, March 17
My dear Bertrand and Brian,

You have victory in your grasp. You are tired, stressed out, impatient to reach the end. Who wouldn't be in these conditions? The whole world is backing you with every possible kind of support....

Less than three days to go before you arrive at your meridian...with a wind that's going to keep accelerating all the way.

Courage. Everyone loves you and embraces you.

Papa

P.S. Maybe a little physical exercise would do you good? (I'm judging from a safe distance.)

 

Piccard, March 18, 36,100 feet over the West Indies
When I got up and came into the cockpit, saying, "Where are we?" Brian swiveled round on his chair with a big smile on his face and said, "Bertrand, we're already past Jamaica and on our way to Haiti."

By the time dawn broke on the 18th we had overflown Haiti and were heading for Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. In the control center, Alan reported, "We should talk when you are over Puerto Rico, just to check numbers and confirm the Atlantic crossing is sensible."

The balloon was at its ceiling. Heading and speed were perfect. Then suddenly we started drifting too far south. When I called Luc and Pierre, they said, "Don't vent any more helium than you have to, but your heading is bad. You have to lose height."

It was a horrible dilemma. What was I to do? Every instinct told me to stay high. If we descended, we would have to burn more to gain height again later. I made the terrible decision to open the valve at the top of the envelope, venting precious helium to make us descend. The descent seemed to do the trick, putting us back on the right heading; but for the whole of the rest of the day I had to compensate for the lost gas by burning propane.

Our remaining stock of fuel was pathetically small—40 hours' burning at most.

 

Fax from Alan Noble, March 18
Our best guess at the moment is a landing in Mali on Sunday, March 21 at sunrise, but that might change. Mali is mainly desert and has lions, leopards, etc.... Getting to you could be a problem. We are going to fly in by private jet, but we might then have to get four-wheel-drive vehicles and drive across the desert because there do not seem to be any helicopters in Mali.... If you have the fuel, Egypt is the best bet.

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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