July 1, 1999
By Peter A. Bedell
What was billed as the last great aviation achievement was attained by Dr. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon in March. After more than 20 failed attempts by several teams from various countries over the last few decades, the two men circumnavigated the globe nonstop in 19 days, 21 hours, and 47 minutes (see " Pilot Briefing," May Pilot).
Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist, and Jones, a balloon instructor and designated examiner from Wiltshire, England, were not even supposed to end up in the gondola together. Piccard's longtime copilot, Wim Verstraeten, was the logical choice, but he'd had had enough of around-the-world attempts after the Breitling team's second failed effort. The next in line was Tony Brown, who, citing personal differences with Piccard, dropped out of the team last November. Jones, who was the ground-bound project manager for the Breitling effort, was the third selection. Not needing to brush any rust off of his flying skills, the experienced balloon pilot happily obliged.
The balloon launched from the Swiss Alps on March 1. The two men were then sealed for nearly three weeks in a pressurized capsule that measured 20 feet long by 8 feet in diameter — roughly the size of a wide-body corporate jet. The gondola and envelope together measured nearly 200 feet in height. The pilots' days were split into eight-hour shifts. Each pilot flew solo for eight hours and shared the flying duties for another eight hours.
Fighting boredom apparently was not an issue. The crew spent much of its time communicating with the control center through various methods including satellite telephone. The control center was constantly monitoring the progress of the flight and providing critical support, especially in the form of meteorological information. At other times, Piccard said, he wrote in a journal. Not surprisingly, both men are expected to write books about the journey.
Their combination hot-air/helium balloon carried 32 titanium containers filled with propane, each weighing 220 pounds. "When we took off we had no idea whether we had enough fuel, because we did not know how much the balloon would use, and we had no idea of the speed of the wind," said Piccard. There were no test flights because there were far too many variables that would remain unknown anyway.
Altitude was also a major variable. "During the first part of the flight when we were below 25,000 feet, we realized that we had plenty of fuel. When we started to fly higher, the burners were not as efficient; we lost more helium; the balloon started to carry ice; and we would use a pair of bottles every 24 to 28 hours instead of every 36 to 48," said Piccard. The balloon reached a maximum of 37,100 feet but typically remained in the mid-20s during the first half of the trip, climbing into the mid-30s during the second half.
Orbiter 3's gondola has a simple pressurization system whose design was pioneered by Piccard's grandfather, Auguste Piccard. Instead of needing to be pumped up by compressed air as pressurized airplane cabins are, Orbiter 3's gondola was sealed tight at lower altitudes to trap ambient air before climbing. To keep the air clean and breathable, liquid nitrogen and oxygen were evaporated and CO2 and charcoal filters removed dangerous gases. Life within the capsule was harsh, with below-freezing temperatures and air filter problems that sometimes made breathing difficult for the pilots. In addition, communications with the control center were cut off for days at a time.
The pilots used all but one-half of one container of propane in their journey. Areas of stagnant air provided little push, at times slowing the giant balloon to a crawl. The jet stream flow infrequently pushed the balloon to nearly 120 kt.
Luck had a tremendous role in the success of the flight. Political issues with regard to overflight of certain countries had to be carefully worked out. In the case of Orbiter 3, two dedicated weather observers managed to "steer" the balloon around China as well as several areas of poor weather by climbing and descending to find winds of desirable direction.
Piccard's introduction to aviation came in his teens. An accomplished hang glider pilot, he was introduced to balloons when he used them as a platform from which he launched his hang glider. Those ascensions intrigued Piccard, and he shifted gears from hang gliders to ballooning. In 1992 global-scale ballooning became more of a possibility thanks to advances in navigation systems such as GPS. Piccard crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon and won the Chrysler Transatlantic Challenge.
Jones said of his introduction to ballooning, "One flight and I was hooked. I've hardly flown anything else since."
After the trip, Piccard and Jones came to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to accept the Budweiser Cup and the $1 million prize that came with it. It was also announced that the balloon's gondola and part of its gigantic envelope will be on permanent display in the museum (see " Pilot Briefing," June Pilot). The money from the Budweiser Cup will start the Winds of Hope Foundation that will fund efforts to encourage respect for life and the environment.
Neither man wants to make a trip around the world in a balloon again. "It may detract from the magic of this flight," said Jones. "Besides, it doesn't get any easier just because you've done it."
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