Outside magazine, June 1996
They're swashbuckling billionaires and absent-minded dreamers, all chasing one of the last great adventures: 25,000 miles around the globe by jet stream and Icarian wing. No stopping, no sploshing.
By Daniel Coyle
On a moonlit January night a dozen miles outside Rapid City, South Dakota, people are gathering. The balloon is beginning to inflate, and word has gone out: It's time.
Though it's long past midnight, dozens of onlookers walk from their cars toward the meadow: plump moms toting raspberry-cheeked toddlers, brush-cut Romeos close-arming their girlfriends, and old codgers with beagle-eared hunting caps--the sober-minded Protestant citizenry of the Great Plains. There are cafeteria workers, gas-station attendants, local balloonheads, even a busload of dignitaries, all moving slowly and grimly toward the Stratobowl, the natural amphitheater once used by the air force in the thirties to launch manned stratospheric balloons. "Would somebody please remind me why I'm not home in bed?" a voice calls. Nobody laughs.
From the bus emerges none other than Governor Bill Janklow, Newt of the Black Hills. He approaches the clearing in a misshapen ski hat, eyeglasses frosted, bewildered and grouchy from the hour. "This the place?" he crankily inquires.
"You betchum, guv," someone replies.
The thumbs of South Dakota's highest-ranking official scrape peepholes in the lenses. The gubernatorial eyes widen into a pop-eyed stare.
"Well, hey," he says. "Wouldja look at that!"
Around him, on the edges of this light-blazed meadow, stand the square-jawed men, women, and children of his state, all raising their skeptical eyes and craning their necks and smiling--no, beaming!--positively beaming in giddy rapture at the flapping, silvery thing in their midst. The great balloon! The magic sail! The Icarian wing! You betchum!
Half inflated, it sprawls across the snowy meadow like a recumbent brontosaurus, its surface glittering with hoarfrost, a sparkling, heaving acre of reflective Mylar so alien-looking that a little girl, gingerly treading forth for a better look, turns and buries her face in her mother's coat. At the balloon's midsection, veinlike, flexible plastic tubes supply helium from truck-borne tanks, emitting a loud, breathy hiss that takes on the rhythm of a heartbeat. Whooshing and crackling, its longitudinal seams tensing like the fibrils of a giant muscle, the 150-foot-tall behemoth begins to assume its shape--"standing up," it's called. If a squadron of flying saucers were to drop out of the sky now and bank into the meadow, the good people of Rapid City wouldn't bat an eyelash. Wouldja look at that!
At the balloon's base, eclipsed by the majesty of its envelope, stands a squarish, one-person gondola with a top-entry porthole. The yellow exterior is girdled by 17 tanks of propane, which will be burned to help keep the balloon aloft. By ascending a stepladder next to the gondola, it's possible to look inside, where dozens of dials and switches, two propane heaters, a sleeping bag and toilet, two notebook computers, three weeks' worth of rations, several radios, and dozens of other devices are cunningly nooked and crannied for optimal usability. The cockpit, so modest and efficient, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the interior of a tiny Winnebago, an RV of the firmament. Peering into the cavity, one is struck by a slow-dawning awe: Here is where it will happen. Here, on a thinly padded bench, multimillionaire options trader Steve Fossett will sit as he flies over three oceans and four continents on aviation's last and most daring journey: circumnavigation of the globe by balloon.
But even now, a troop of competing balloonists is making preparations to defy extremely long odds and 25,000 miles in search of the very goal. This night, at a small factory in western England, another whirring little Winnebago is being assembled by the formidable British team of Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand, who together have navigated the Atlantic and Pacific. In the Netherlands, veteran balloonist Henk Brink is waiting with his copilot for good weather to launch his Unicef Flyer. In New Mexico, Bob Martin and his Odyssey group are planning to top them all with a summer stratospheric flight at a record 120,000 feet.
But in this moment of creamy possibility, going round the world in a balloon, a Vernean notion that has played in the minds of adventurers for the last 150 years, has blossomed into a corporate-national combat d'honneur, with Fosset about to fire the first volley tonight. To avoid thunderstorms and to take advantage of seasonal jet-stream winds, Fossett, Branson, and Brink have all planned their launches for winter. Flying above the weather, Martin plans to launch in July, when stratospheric winds blow the steadiest.
Of course, flying "round the world" is not so much a race as a stab at immortality. In RTW, as it's called, there is no starting line; no standard set of equipment, and no monetary prize--even the sainted Lindbergh was gunning for a prize. There is no semblance of a level playing field: Fossett will spend $300,000 of his own money, Brink more than 3.5 million corporate dollars, Branson close to five million corporate dollars, while Martin is scratching for every penny. There is only the overarching goal, which like the North Pole a century ago resonates with the sort of allegorical purity that attracts priests, madmen, and in this case a wildly disparate cross section of billionaires, pilots, entrepreneurs, and even a television reporter, bound only by a common derangement: a faith that they can fly these notoriously unpredictable contraptions through the hazards of weather, terrain, and hostile governments, over the oceans and continents of the world, drifting five times farther than anyone ever has.
The aeronauts' ambition is only slightly exceeded by that of their corporate backers, which include Rolls-Royce Limited, Virgin, Mobil Oil Corporation, and Lockheed Martin, among others, each aware that in the coarse science of logo placement, RTW represents a supreme opportunity. Of course, it doesn't come cheap: A four-inch-high sticker on a gondola costs in the tens of thousands; a hallowed placement on the envelope itself can run six figures and higher. But according to those who deal in such numbers, it's worth it. In an age when advertising for the Super Bowl costs $1 million per minute, the real possibility of live, all-network coverage of a Lindbergh-style landing is too tantalizing to resist. And though no one would ever admit it, a crash wouldn't be all that bad either, provided it was suitably photogenic.
Besides that, with a single balloon--or better, several competing balloons--soaring over America and Europe, there are those who believe a buzz will inevitably begin to build. Every person who comes within sight of the balloon--millions, perhaps--will be drawn into the drama: Will they make it? Will they crash in the Himalayas? Will they be devoured by sharks? Reflexively, the media will embrace the story, these Phileas Foggs and Magellans steering their balloons on a unifying drift above the muddle of the post-Cold War globe. For a few weeks, the balloons' ever-lengthening path will be etched into newspapers, TV screens, and the slippery veneer of modern consciousness; a feel-good story for the entire earth. Think of the visuals! The balloons drifting over Belfast, Hebron, and Sarajevo, above the Empire State Building and Big Ben, above the wheat fields of Kansas and the Kalahari Desert, a thousand bristles of earthbound humanity gesturing to the sky, to the pilots, and most lucratively to the words etched like holy symbols onto the side of the envelope.
Already, tonight in South Dakota, the revving has begun: Today needs footage. The New York Times needs an interview. Ted Koppel is planning to devote a show to Fossett, and National Geographic has lined up an exclusive deal for Fossett's in-flight story. It's a flurry reminiscent of that created by the other RTW effort of recent years: the Hilton-financed, ill-designed, dumbbell-shaped Earthwinds, which repeatedly ignited a media stir despite the fact that in five launches, it never made it farther than the 180 miles from Reno, Nevada, to (ahem) Fresno, California. So it's not really a race, except for one thing: Winner takes all.
As launch time inches closer, the crowd at the Stratobowl is starting to cast uneasy looks. Where's Fossett? They hunt for the face, familiar from local newspaper photos: the steel-colored hair, the wide-set brown eyes, the guileless smile, the simpler-than-simple manner that caused one scribe to dub him Fossett Gump. He's a down-to-earth guy, say local pundits, not your average multimillionaire. As each new middle-aged man walks onto the meadow, heads turn. Is it you? You?
A smart, hardworking fellow by all accounts, the 52-year-old Fossett spent the eighties extracting millions from the cobra-pit of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. In 1991 he decided to devote his life to what he terms, with characteristic mildness, "my adventure endeavors." One by one, he checked them off like accounts in some private ledger. Iditarod--check. LeMans--check. Leadville 100-Mile Run--check. Baja 1000--check. The highest mountain on six of the world's seven continents (all but Everest)--check. In 1993, he purchased a 60-foot trimaran and decided to try ocean sailing. A month later he won the Round Britain and Ireland Race but was unsatisfied, having missed the world record by five hours. So he went around again. In each endeavor, Fossett paid as he went, desiring no glory, no sponsors, only his name in the record books. Within various adventure circles, word went out fast: Don't be fooled by the benign persona, for here is a sort of superman with a kind of superwill, a creature of the marketplace, a velociraptor of commerce who can show who the real dilettantes are.
"Steve sets goals, and he's very methodical about achieving them," says Bob Kirkland, a friend and president of Fossett's trading company. "He wanted his business a certain size, so he did it. He wants to set world records, and so he does it. Obviously, he has a tremendous ego, but he's not doing this to impress anyone. It just gives him satisfaction."
"Some guys my age do triathlons," Fossett says. "I like to do other stuff."
Other stuff almost always involves world records, which seem the unifying passion behind Fosset's many pursuits. A few years ago, he started keeping a list, adding to it each time he set a new mark: one in '93, two more in '94, three more in '95. Friends speculate that Fossett's fascination with records has something to do with his futures-trading background, that unlike most of us, who could be satisfied with the experience of adventure, Fossett requires an incontrovertible proof, a tangible currency. Fossett, of course, has less to say. "I like records. They prove something."
His first balloon flight was in 1993, to get certified. On his first flight as a licensed pilot, less than a year later, he crossed the Atlantic with copilot Tim Cole. On his second flight, in February 1995, he soloed the Pacific, a trip some said could never be made, and he did it with a paltry budget of $250,000 (ocean crossings routinely exceed $1 million) and an unpressurized gondola, subsisting on handfuls of M&Ms and urinating into a bucket. Having notched 5,435.82 miles--a world's distance record, of course--he flawlessly executed his first-ever solo landing, near Mendham, Saskatchewan, and then strolled away to spend the summer setting sailing records. Letterman and Leno wanted him on their shows, but he turned them down. Too busy being Fossett.
For this flight, however, Fossett has opened himself up to the media. His reasons are tactical. "Our strategy is to develop a tremendous amount of national and worldwide publicity, to try to make it difficult for countries to refuse us air space," says project manager Bo Kemper. "The other thing is, the more they know about us, the less likely it is that they'll shoot us."
In dealing with the media in Rapid City over the last few weeks, a curious dynamic has evolved. Fossett proves a tireless, accommodating, and by general acclaim astonishingly dull interview. He spends hour after hour issuing milquetoast platitudes and cheery generalities, and after an initial shock the reporters respond with a perverse sort of enjoyment. They begin to see him as an overgrown kid, the uncalculating boy next door with big dreams. It's not exactly true, of course, but by refusing to play the game, Fossett wins. He gets coverage, and plenty of it.
At 2:30 a.m., word flashes through the crowd that he's arrived. Heads turn, conversations cease, and eyes blink in momentary confusion at the shambling figure emerging from the darkness. That's him? Really?
Fossett is wearing a ski cap, a plaid shirt, and Dockers pants. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Brian Dennehy, and he looks a little...well, fat. Smiling apologetically, eyes cast earthward to deflect attention, Fossett walks toward the capsule. Governor Janklow works his way over for a photo and keeps sneaking glances at Fossett, as if trying to figure out what makes him tick. Fossett just smiles his Gumplike smile, all cordiality and deference.
"Nice to meet you, Governor, heh heh," Fossett says. "Glad you could, ahhh, make it out tonight."
His voice is surprising: a delicate, breathy alto, rising at the end of each phrase as if unsure of itself. He doesn't sound like an aviation hero. He sounds like a nervous waiter.
"Yeah." The governor stares, disbelieving. "Great."
A few minutes later, in the ramshackle garage that serves as mission headquarters, the TV boys get their turn. Lights flare, videocams start to grind, and a half-dozen interviewers--PBS, National Geographic, Nightline, local network guys--drop into crescent formation.
"So here we are." The dulcet-voiced Nightline correspondent fixes Fossett with his most provocative gaze. "I guess there's only one question: Are you ready?"
Fossett's eyes widen, unblinking. "Oh, yeah, pretty much, heh heh."
The microphone stays thrust under Fossett's chin. Nightline shoots him a look--keep going--but Fossett doesn't seem to notice.
Stymied, the reporter lets fly another softball: "What's going through your mind right now?"
Fossett pauses, seemingly falling into deep thought. Nightline relaxes. Now we're getting somewhere.
"Well, ahhh, gee," Fossett says. "What I'm thinking about most is that there are, ahhh, a large number of things that need to be done before the launch, and we, ahhh, need to make sure that they're all done right. That's what I'm thinking about."
You can almost hear Nightline's brain screaming: What! We bust our ass to come to godforsaken nowhere to get some quotable one-small-step-for-man gemlets, and instead we get Mister Fucking Rogers?
Fossett beams the double-rows. "Gee, I just sure am hoping that I can make it."
Then, suddenly, Nightline gets it. His face begins to light up. Soon they're all getting it, nodding and smiling along with Fossett. Of course! The utter simplicity of it all! There are no caterwauling sponsors, no agenda-pushers; there is only this garage and this man and...the earth itself. Across the meadow his ship awaits, monstrous sail hissing and heaving, and Fossett is beaming his big smile straight into the darkness and saying he hopes he makes it. Heroic profundity! It's not Mister Rogers--it's Buck Rogers! And to think he paid for it himself, every blessed cent! Lenses telescope toward Fossett's eyes. The interviewers stare. To them, Fossett is no longer a rich options-trader; he's a knight-errant. And knights-errant don't stand around making nice with TV boys--they've got heroic business to take care of. The reporters gaze at him in wordless, blood-brother affirmation: Yes. Go.
After a few perfunctory questions, there's nothing left to ask. Fossett smiles, thanks the media for its kind support, and walks with a waddle toward his waiting ship.
Like presidential candidates and stock-car racers, adventure balloonists tend toward the optimistic. This is not a matter of predilection so much as necessity, since the overwhelming majority of flights result in two outcomes: ditch or splosh.
Even if everything goes right--which experienced pilots acknowledge almost never happens--the technical difficulty of searching out the right winds, staying at the proper altitude, and dealing with variances in temperature and weather make an RTW flight an immensely problematic proposition, a game that some pilots compare to three-dimensional chess.
Take Atlantic crossings, for instance: 14 sploshes (and five deaths) before Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo, and Larry Newman's Double Eagle II finally made it in 1978. Look at trans-American attempts: four ditches before John Shoecraft and Frederick Gorrell landed Super Chicken III on the Georgia coast in 1981. RTW has been attempted three times, by Anderson, John Petrehn, and Larry Newman's Earthwinds. Anderson took Jules Verne the farthest, 2,676 miles from Egypt, before ditching at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau.
It's not simply that you crash. It's the way you crash. There's no white-hot blaze of Santiniesque glory to be found here; only the hairline shift of a few lift-pounds pressing the balloon's paper-thin envelope down into gravity's motherless embrace. Accidents almost never happen suddenly. They unfold slowly, with precision and elephantine grace. It is significant that balloonist vocabulary lacks the term "crash landing." It's redundant.
There's icing, for instance: You drift into supercooled clouds, the envelope is covered by a thick rime whose weight pulls the balloon earthward, toward warmer air in which the ice melts, drenching the occupants and dumping the weight, launching the balloon upward like a jack-in-the-box, only to be covered by more ice, only to sink again... Boing, boing, ditch, splosh.
Or a pinhole leak, which can bring a balloon down in three or four days. Or the nefariousness of low-pressure systems, which suck a balloon into a slow whirlpool, spinning irretrievably toward a storm. Or lightning, which can toss balloonists out of the sky wholesale--five killed in a single 1923 race. Or simply altitude: Drop too much ballast to fly high, and there's nothing left to slow your descent, as happened to the Soviet balloon Osoaviakhim in its 1934 return from a record altitude of 72,178 feet. As the three-man capsule dropped toward earth, buffeted by turbulence that eliminated any possibility of parachuting out, Soviet ground control received a final radio broadcast.
"The bright sunlight... The gondola... Beautiful sky... The ground... This... The sky... The balloon... It..." The balloon finally ripped under the strain. All three crew members died.
There are mechanical difficulties. Trying to avoid crossing the East German border in a 1983 race, Maxie Anderson and Don Ida were forced to ditch in the Bavarian Alps. Touching down, they flipped the switch that fired the explosive bolts to release the now-useless envelope from the gondola, and nothing happened. The switch malfunctioned--"hanging fire," it's called--because of either a faulty battery or a two-cent piece of copper wire. The wind gusted, and suddenly they were up in the air again, floating high above the ground. The bolts fired. Neither survived the fall.
Then there is the more delicate wiring of international relations. The end of the Cold War, while it has significantly boosted the hopes of a Northern Hemisphere RTW (the south consists of too much water and too little media), has brought a new type of problem. Last September, while participating in the Gordon Bennett Cup long-distance race, American balloonists John Stuart-Jervis and Alan Fraenckel were killed when their drifting balloon came too close to a missile launch site in Belarus. The mild stir that followed ended with the usual diplomatic serve-and-volley: The United States expressed its sincere outrage and the Belarussians pledged a "full investigation." Translation: Sorry guys, but what do you expect, playing kick-the-can above the scud-happy fiefdoms of the new world order?
All of these problems, however, are symptoms of the real hazard: the wind. Balloons are blown into clouds of ice crystals, across unfriendly borders, and into storms. They are perfectly enmeshed in the breeze, the aerodynamic equal of a pollen speck or a flake of volcanic ash. Roaring along at 200 mph in the jet stream, you could lay a tissue on the side of the gondola and it wouldn't even ripple. Long-distance balloonists seek control of the wind through a constant ticker tape of meteorological forecasts, digitized facsimiles of the Arabian nafhat, the beshabar of the Caucasus, and the Samiel from Turkey; North Africa's solano, California's Santa Ana, and the sirocco of the Sahara, which can blow such quantities of red sand to Europe that rains of blood were reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901. As late as the 1920s, sailors of the Shetland Islands purchased benevolent winds from old women for a sixpence. The Payaguas of South America beat the air with their fists to frighten oncoming storms, and Herodotus tells of a Saharan army that attempted to halt the simoom, or poison wind, by donning its battle gear and marching directly into it. Though the aeronauts are able to seek out favorable winds by fine-tuning their altitude, and though they can master the Byzantine mathematics of trajectory plotting, their control over their destiny remains, to put it kindly, limited. Once aloft, other forces take control. The sky... The balloon... It...
"On a long trip like this, it really does come down to luck," says Alan Noble, Fossett's flight director and head of marketing for Cameron Balloons, the company that designs and builds Fossett's balloons. "Assuming that all the equipment works, it comes down to meteorological luck."
No one is more aware of this than Bob Martin, the 42-year-old television reporter who heads up the Odyssey Expedition from his cluttered office at the CBS affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A bearlike man whose smooth demeanor is occasionally broken by a manic laugh, Martin conceived of Odyssey six years ago when he reported a story on New Mexico State University's stratospheric ballooning studies. Already a pilot, sky diver, and inveterate space buff, he was intrigued. "I started thinking, If they can send this machine to the edge of space, why couldn't a person ride along?" He giggles. "It wasn't until later that I thought about going around the world."
Using a polyethylene balloon that when fully inflated would nearly fill Yankee Stadium, Martin plans to launch what amounts to a civilian space shot. At a peak altitude of more than 24 miles, the three-ton capsule will float above 99.5 percent of the earth's atmosphere, adrift in steady stratospheric winds that should take it around the globe in 18 days. While this approach eliminates most weather-related hazards, it does have some distinct downsides. Sudden depressurization at altitude means instant death: Lungs explode; blood boils inside veins. An envelope malfunction would be equally unpleasant: If the gondola's parachute should fail, the crew would be forced to skydive, accelerating to free falls of 800 mph and possibly uncontrollable spins that according to air force research can reach 465 revolutions per minute, or about the speed of an electric fan. Stay in the spin, and the centrifugal force ruptures the blood vessels in your eyes and knocks you unconscious; pull the rip cord, and you run out of oxygen before you reach earth.
Because of the risks and the team's relative inexperience, most observers say they have little chance. "They're nice kids, but it's complete and utter fantasy," says one RTW pilot who doesn't wish to be named. But Martin shows no signs of flagging. He's raised $1.3 million so far from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, and the National Geographic Society--$500,000 short of the goal for a July launch. He pilots his minivan around the West, pitching Odyssey to soda makers, aerospace engineering firms, and because of a certain uncanny resemblance the balloon possesses at launch, condom manufacturers.
"We're not proud. We'll do what it takes to go," says Martin, who will be accompanied by sport balloonist Troy Bradley, world-record holder for flight duration. "There's no reason we should be doing what we're doing, but there's also no reason why we can't."
The hubbub in the Stratobowl is now building. Governor Janklow ardently grips a gondola rope. Andy Elson, the balloon designer, dangles from a construction crane in a climbing harness, inspecting the envelope for flaws. Like Brink and Branson's RTW balloons, this is a Rozier, which means it consists of a helium bubble set within a hot-air envelope.
Fossett, now attired in a thermal bodysuit, walks around the capsule with launch codirector Nick Saum. Slowly, clearly, Saum describes several pieces of equipment and how they operate. Fossett is totally absorbed, staring at the capsule as if he's never heard any of it in his life.
"Here's your oil warning light," Saum is saying. "If this sucker goes on, you need to put more oil in the generator." Fossett nods. Someone notices a footlong tear in the lower part of the envelope. Heads tilt worriedly upward; inquiries are made. No problem, responds a crew member. That's just the Mylar envelope. The helium cell--the important one--is intact.
The other concern is weather. Though wind forecasts show a smooth ride across the Atlantic, the East Coast storm is getting worse--record snows from Atlanta to New York City. "Awww, he can ride it across the Atlantic," an onlooker says. Everyone nods, confident. What could stop him? If Pecos Bill could ride a storm, why not Fossett?
Then, at 6:44, all is ready. The helium valve clicks off, and the meadow is bathed in an unearthly hush. The balloon sways above, extended in its full silvery glory. The crowd shoulders close to the capsule. Fossett leans out to make a speech.
"Well, aahh, I want to thank you all for coming out here tonight." He thanks us! "I sure hope that you don't get too upset with me if I come up short." How could we?
Fossett goes on for a minute or so, in clichës that would turn to ashes in any other mouth but that in his, now, seem so transfixing, so brilliant, so...true. The people stand in rapture--the gas-station attendant snaps a photo, old men lean in to hear, the governor still grips the rope. Then, quicker than seems possible, Fossett is gone, rising above the snow, blasting fire into the envelope. If he were to look down, and he doesn't, he would see people praying.
Across the Atlantic, speaking from the picturesque village of Oswestry, En-gland, Per Lindstrand could not be more pleased.
"I'm glad," he says with a trace of his native Swedish. "Steve Fossett is a worthy opponent. Of course, flying at a low level is more risky, but he's very, very brave. I take my hat off to him."
Of course, Lindstrand would say something like that. As ballooning's resident superhero, he could never display any emotion short of absolute confidence. And that confidence seems to generate many of the stories that swirl around Lindstrand: How as a young air force pilot, his leg wrecked in a skiing accident, he bet a friend that he would fly across the airfield before the end of the year, then built a contraption from a parachute, a kitchen table, chicken wire, and a propane bottle from an asphalt-cooker and won the bet. How he, with Richard Branson, flew the first hot-air crossings of the Atlantic, in 1987, and the Pacific, in 1991, sealing themselves in pressurized capsules and riding the 200-mph current of high-altitude jet streams. Even in the supporting details--his possessions include a helicopter, a collection of eighteenth-century flintlock pistols, and ice-blue eyes--the 46-year-old Lindstrand is the embodiment of fighter-jock infallibility. Some in the ballooning community view Lindstrand as a cocky show-off, a grandstander. But for most, there is no doubt. He has earned his affectations.
"He's the only man who can dream, design, build, and fly," says Dr. Coy Foster, holder of numerous hot-air records and member of Lindstrand's RTW team. "Nobody can do all of it except Per."
There's only one catch. Despite the fact that Lindstrand conceived of the expedition, designed and built the capsule, assembled the crew, and will do virtually all of the piloting, no one is supposed to know it. Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin empire and one of the world's richest men, will be on this balloon. So Lindstrand, by contract, must disappear.
On the two flights with Branson so far, the drill has been the same: Lindstrand and his company design and build the capsule, while handling all the technical problems of the flight; then, just before launch, the Virgin machine rolls in to handle the on-the-ground logistics. Lindstrand is prohibited from putting his company's name on the balloon, gondola, or expedition letterhead; he is not paid a pilot's fee and is forbidden to write a book, cooperate with a film, or in any way tell his story about the voyage. The contract stipulates that Branson, not Lindstrand, is the captain of the Virgin Global Challenger. Cleanly, efficiently, any trace of Lindstrand is erased, leaving a dull-faced functionary who goes by the title "Branson's copilot."
Like all Faustian bargains, this one possesses a blunt, mathematical logic--namely 2.5 million of Branson's dollars (though 110 other sponsors and an additional $2 million have been recruited). Less quantifiable but equally potent is the fact that the 45-year-old Branson is the golden boy of Britain. Not because he is the founder of the Virgin empire (now including the record stores, airline, cola, megastores, computer software, modeling agency, you name it, more than 100 companies in all), but because he will do anything. Anything! Branson skis naked. He loosens up corporate parties by blasting fire extinguishers and dancing strip-teases; he drops out of a helicopter into his wedding, sprays Princess Di with champagne, does anything so long as (1) it's fun and (2) it's good for business. Rumor has it that Branson recently visited Henk Brink and offered him $250,000 to launch at the same time, just to make sure nobody beat him to the RTW punch.
"Branson can take no chances--he must be first," says Mary Hollingsworth, former editor of Balloons and Airships magazine. "After all, that's what he's paying for."
"Most insiders agree that Branson's buying himself a ride," says Glen Moyer, special reports editor of Balloon Life. "No one is convinced that Branson has anywhere near the skill, should Per Lindstrand collapse, to fly around the world."
Not to say that Branson acts like a passenger. On the Atlantic and Pacific crossings, he executed his duties of video recording and radio communications with an efficient if somewhat breathless style, and he comported himself with suitable aplomb. Most of the time.
Well, there was the untidiness of 1987, at the end of the Atlantic crossing. After a fairly uneventful flight from Maine, a sudden downdraft flung their gondola into the Irish countryside, necessitating a water landing off the Donegal coast. The idea was to ditch, fire the explosive bolts to release the envelope, and wait in the comfort of the floating capsule until rescue. As they descended, Branson donned a survival suit with its attendant locator beacon, emergency rations, and life raft. Lindstrand, piloting the balloon, only had time to pull on his parachute.
They splashed down, and Lindstrand flipped the switches. Nothing happened. Lindstrand realized instantly what was occurring: A circuit had shorted--they were hanging fire, like Anderson and Ida. Surging with air, the balloon started to lift off. Knowing the bolts could blow any second, Lindstrand shouted to Branson to jump on the count of three. One...two...three... Lindstrand leaped into the water, and Branson...
Branson didn't. Whether he froze or, as he later said, became entangled on top of the capsule will always remain unclear. But he didn't leap. Richard the Lion-Hearted, Britain's greatest living folk hero, sat in the gondola, kitted out in several layers of survival gear, rising into the clouds as his pilot treaded water below.
Retelling the story today, Lindstrand is fond of saying that from that point Branson did everything right. "That's Per's subtle way of saying that Richard didn't do anything," says Chris Kirby, former codirector of Thunder & Colt, Lindstrand's balloon company at the time. "The balloon went up, and he sat there. He couldn't very well have flown it, could he?"
In keeping with Branson's luck, he didn't have to. The bolts held. Drifting randomly, the balloon descended a hundred yards from a Royal Navy vessel, which happened to be in the area on an exercise. Ten minutes later, Branson was in a warm bath, a beer in hand, when he asked his rescuers how Per was doing.
You know, the other pilot.
There's another pilot?
By this time, Lindstrand had been swimming for an hour in 50-degree water. In best air force fashion, he had laid out his parachute to aid spotters, but in the commotion and bad weather, no one had noticed. Blue-faced and dangerously hypothermic, he was finally rescued by tourists in a dinghy. When pulled aboard, he could say only one word: "Branson."
Swaddled in gray blankets, he was brought to a press conference where Branson, stunningly outfitted in a Royal Navy jumpsuit, held court before an enthralled nation. Branson later guessed the episode gained him $40 million in publicity.
Despite the Atlantic fiasco, and despite Branson's brief flirtation with the doomed Earthwinds attempt, the two have stayed together. And why shouldn't they? Lindstrand gets to fly, Branson gets the glory, and serious balloonists--who purchase Lindstrand's custom-built balloons and gondolas--know the real story. It's a marvelously successful codependency.
"Basically, Per's the only guy who can give Richard what he wants," says John Christopher, editor of Aerostat magazine. "And Per can't do it without Richard's money. Perhaps they were destined to be together."
As the Virgin team readies for launch in Morocco, word blinks over the wires: Fossett's in trouble. Debris has been spotted floating in the Bay of Fundy, off Nova Scotia. Two helicopters, a Hercules aircraft, and two Canadian coast guard cutters are searching. Ground control personnel at Cameron headquarters in Bristol, England, and in Chicago are nearly frantic.
Fossett isn't supposed to be in Nova Scotia; in fact, he was originally projected to cross into the Atlantic at Jacksonville, Florida, a mere continent's width south. But despite forecasts to the contrary, the East Coast blizzard has taken him a full 90 degrees off course; at his present heading, Fossett is aimed at Greenland. Unfortunately, that's the least of his problems. The power system is malfunctioning and his heaters aren't working; the Mylar outer envelope has been fairly rent by dozens of large tears.
After an anxious hour, Fossett's emergency locator beacon is picked up--he's still flying, having dumped the propane tanks and other ballast into the sea in preparation for an emergency landing. Emerging from the clouds, he floats over the village of Hampton, New Brunswick, where he's spotted by a newspaper editor who's having breakfast. A small parade of trucks and dogs in his wake, Fossett drifts over a golf course and ditches in a farmer's field, dragging a pair of would-be helpers 100 yards across the snow before finally coming to rest near a haystack. A mild mob scene ensues. A small Canadian flag is thrust into Fossett's hand. Shreds of silver fabric are torn off for keepsakes.
"A textbook landing," says his spokesman in Chicago.
"The most embarrassing day of my life" is Fossett's blunt assessment later.
As these things tend to be, the postmortem is fairly inconclusive. As evidenced by the rips, the modified Rozier design proved a dud. There were problems with the vaporizer, which supplied vapor propane to the heaters and generator. There is also a troublesome theory that the source of the power problem was Fossett's failure to turn up the generator throttle. As the generator lies at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy, the question is difficult to resolve.
"We never thought to tell him to turn up the throttle--we figured he knew," says a member of ground control who declines to be identified. "It's rather like someone having car trouble--you wouldn't think to tell them to put their foot on the accelerator."
"Bullshit," counters Nick Saum, Fossett's launch codirector. "Steve tried everything to fix that generator--in fact, he was ahead of the ground crew most times. The problem was that nothing worked. Steve's never failed at anything. Maybe he was due."
Even with such an inauspicious finale, the flight makes quite a score with the media: CNN, morning shows, network news. On Nightline, Ted Koppel pairs Fossett with the satellite-transmitted visage of Richard Branson, playing up the race. Floating together on the screen, they make quite the couple: the balding, blank-faced American and the leonine Brit. Fossett's Gumplike appeal doesn't translate well to TV; he appears vacuous and defeated, just another chump whose commute was interrupted by the snowstorm.
Compounding his problem is the fact that RTW ballooning defies easy explanation. What could Fossett possibly say? That it's all luck? That he just lost $300,000 by betting on the direction the wind would blow? So Fossett says the only thing he can say.
"Well, ahhh, there were a large number of things that went wrong with the flight," he says in his little voice. "It was embarrassing." Then he stares at the camera, awaiting the next question, and Koppel's peering at him with his sincerely skeptical brown eyes, and all of America can read the word that's slowly forming in his journalist mind: weenie.
Branson, identified as the pilot of the Virgin Global Challenger, fairly ignites the screen. When asked about military risk, he notes that "most heat-seeking missiles only go to 37,000 feet, so we may have to occasionally pop up to 40,000." In his delectable accent, he casually lets drop that he's not scared yet, but "will save that for when it's necessary." Koppel leans forward, charmed by Branson's Yeageresque ëlan, the self-deprecatory slouch of a bona fide hero. When asked if he thinks he'll make it, Branson responds with a toss of his blond mane and a wordless grin. A great, sexy grin, the meaning of which Koppel and the millions of viewers comprehend immediately: Branson can slouch in the face of death. He can dodge the heat-seeking scuds of the godless tribes. He has cool hair. He is already an American hero.
With the dull thud of Fossett's ditched attempt still echoing, Branson jets off to Marrakech, with Lindstrand following shortly behind. The plan is this: Rising out of the Atlas Mountains, Lindstrand and Branson will fly east across the Berber deserts of Algeria and Libya to the nameless dunes of the Sahara. Bypassing Iran to the south, they will cut across the highlands of India, missing the seasonal rains by a few weeks, and then overfly the Ganges toward the Tibetan Plateau, where they may have to gain altitude to avoid the accompanying thermals, rising columns of heated air that can send a balloon ricocheting wildly off course. Tracing the Yangtze to Shanghai, they'll set out over the Pacific, emerging over Baja California and clipping the Everglades on the return to Europe. If all goes well, the flight should take two to three weeks.
"If I win, I'll tell you it's skill," Lindstrand says with an ironic laugh. "If I lose, I'll tell you it's luck."
To guard against mishaps, Lindstrand has added a third pilot, experienced hang-glider and parachutist Rory McCarthy. A joke is making the rounds in Morocco that Lindstrand considered adding a dog as the third team member. Branson's job would have been to feed the dog, while the dog's job would have been to bite Branson if he touched the controls. Hearing the joke for what must be the umpteenth time, Lindstrand gives a rich chuckle, almost as if he started it himself.
Aside from this dig, however, Morocco is rapidly proving a perfect setting for...well, for Richard Branson. The turbines of the Virgin machine, which have been quietly churning for weeks, shift into high gear. The technicians' jumpsuits, which sported Lindstrand Balloons patches, are quickly swapped for those with a Virgin logo. Resplendent in their tarbooshes, Moroccan soldiers help unload the gear. The capsule is unveiled: a two-level aluminum cylinder, 13 feet wide and ten feet high, its encircling propane tanks made up as giant cans of Virgin Cola. The expedition's nutritionist, one of more than 100 support crew members, provides the up-close for anxious press. "Main meals will consist of four courses, including a luxury soup followed for example by wild game péte for Rory, dressed crab for Per, and Richard's favorite, caviar." Branson, we are informed, will bring Yeats for poetry, the B-52s for music, and the board game Risk (what else?) for entertainment.
Through it all, Per Lindstrand remains invisible, referred to as "copilot" or "navigator" when mentioned at all. He steers mostly clear of the hoopla, overseeing work on the capsule, even skiing for a day in the Atlas. Privately, Lindstrand tells friends that Branson has asked whether, in the case of an emergency bailout, the two of them could make a parachute leap in tandem. Masking incredulity, Lindstrand told him sorry, no chance. The hatch is only big enough for one.
The journalists, many of them veterans of the Branson beat, decide that Richard must don desert garb and be photographed atop a camel, and they place bets on how long it will take to achieve this--about half a day, it turns out. In all things, Branson is magnificently himself, hanging out in the bar, joking about heat-seeking missiles, tossing a delighted female tourist into the hotel swimming pool, shimmying with dancing girls at a traditional celebration. With Brink still holding out the possibility of a launch (though knowledgeable observers say he has little chance because of unpromising weather and serious technical problems), Branson sends a telegram: Winner pays for the party. When word gets out that there might be some difficulty obtaining permission to enter Libya's airspace, Branson says he might have to visit Colonel Gadhafi--after all, this is bigger than a mere jihad. Ladbrokes bookmakers establish even odds that they'll make it. Only half-joking, journalists speculate that if Branson succeeds, he'll become Sir Richard. If he is killed, it will be Saint.
There's only one problem. The winds. Rain, clouds, and blustery weather roll in day after day. Each evening brings new celebrations--acrobatic horsemen, fireworks, and dancers, courtesy of Morocco's King Hassan, Branson's close friend. But each day brings more waiting.
Ten days eke by, and the conditions needed for launch remain elusive. The problem, say the meteorologists, is a powerful high-pressure system over Russia and Scandinavia, which is blocking normal weather patterns. Each day a new forecast is issued, a new launch date is planned and then moved. The rains keep coming--the most in Morocco since they began keeping records in 1917. Roads wash out. The holy month of Ramadan arrives; King Hassan runs out of dancing girls.
Wearying of the delays, the press heads back to England in late January. Branson follows. Late February brings premonsoon conditions that can spawn dangerous thunderstorms in the subcontinent. More crucially, the jet stream is starting its inevitable fade, as the warmer temperatures of spring draw it north and break it up. Rumors from England say that Branson wants to wait until next November, when the jet stream will migrate south again. The logic is clear, businesslike: With the pressure of competition removed, why take a chance? It won't look bad--after all, who can control the wind?
Finally, in late February, the clock runs out. The jet stream has now begun its breakup. The gear must be wrapped, stowed, and guarded for another time, when it all will happen again.
Almost immediately, all hats are thrown into the ring again. Lindstrand and Branson will go. Henk Brink will go. After a month's reflection, Fossett says he'll go, and with a redesigned balloon. Dick Rutan, the airplane pilot who flew nonstop around the world in Voyager, says he'll go, as does a group sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker Breitling. Though backing for Odyssey's July launch never materializes, Bob Martin has a new plan: A group of Australian businessmen is negotiating a December launch in its country. "It'll take some work, but we're going to give it a try," Martin says.
So the game will go on and only get better. Late at night, multitudes will gather around clever little Winnebagos, sails will billow with logos, and men will fly, for a while, like gods. Then they will fall, dropping out of the sky onto skyscrapers and haystacks, falling randomly until there comes a moment when a lucky soul finds a nafhat, a beshabar, a solano that will carry him over all perils, to the place he wants to go.
What are we going to do then?
Daniel Coyle is a contributing editor of Outside and the author of Hardball: A Season in the Projects. His profile of David Brower appeared in the December issue.