|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.
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.