This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first balloon flight around the world. For almost three weeks in the spring of 1999, Bertrand Piccard (left) and Brian Jones rode in the cramped quarters of a bright red, carbon-composite egg, 16 feet long and 7 feet in diameter, suspended beneath a gigantic but fragile envelope of hot air and helium cells. Their Breitling Orbiter 3 gondola, which is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., was crammed with navigation and communications equipment, emergency survival gear, a single bunk, and a pressure-operated toilet. After taking off from the small Swiss village of Chateau d’Oex on March 1, the pair headed south to Africa and, communicating with meteorologists and a control center in Geneva mostly by fax, caught rides in a series of jet streams that carried them 25,361 miles to a landing in Egypt on March 21. So impressive was the wind forecasting and strategy for their journey that Steve Fossett hired their meteorologist, Luc Trullemans, for his own 2001 solo round-the-world balloon flight.
Shortly after Jones and Piccard returned, they founded the Winds of Hope foundation with a $1 million prize awarded by Anheuser-Busch for the record-setting flight. In celebration of the 10th anniversary, Jones is making a world tour in a much smaller, hot-air replica of the Breitling Orbiter 3 to raise money for the foundation. Among visits to Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan, and Venezuela, Jones will make several stops in the United States: a private visit to Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, near Reno, Nevada, to make a tribute flight in memory of Steve Fossett, as well as a public appearance at the National Air and Space Museum (see below). At the Museum, Jones will bring birthday greetings to a ten-year-old girl, born on the night before he and Piccard landed, just at the time that the Breitling Orbiter 3 was crossing the latitude where she came into the world. Caught up in the balloonists’ adventure and delighted by the joyousness of their success, Annapolis, Maryland residents Howard and Sharon Snyder named their newborn daughter Breitling.
Pilot Brian Jones will make a special appearance at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall on Thursday, October 1, at noon.
Crews had begun inflating the Breitling Orbiter’s envelope at three o’clock on the morning of the launch from Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland, a ski resort 35 miles southwest of Bern. At about 9 a.m. local time on March 1, 1999, amid the loud ringing of church bells, cheers from thousands who had assembled, and the blaring of a fire engine’s siren, the crew chief severed the last rope holding the balloon—with a Swiss Army knife, of course.
Moments into the flight, the balloon was still at a low altitude, but would eventually reach that of the airliner flying above it—about 35,000 feet. Throughout the flight, speeds ranged from about 25 to 185 mph.
On March 4, at 10,000 feet over the vast emptiness of the Sahara Desert, Jones cut loose four empty auxiliary fuel tanks. The propane gas that fueled the balloon’s six burners was carried in 28 titanium cylinders mounted in two rows along the sides of the gondola. Piccard suggested adding four additional propane tanks prior to take-off in case the balloons track took it down over Africa at the outset. It was a wise decision. The balloon landed in the Egyptian desert almost three weeks after take-off with less than a quarter of a tank of fuel remaining.
The 28 cylinders mounted along the sides of the gondola had automatic release mechanisms, but the four additional tanks mounted in the corners had to be cut free. Although the gondola was equipped with a safety harness, neither pilot felt the need to use it during their time outside. While Jones worked on the auxiliary tanks, Piccard held him by the ankle.
Once a tank was released, Jones wrote later in the co-authored book Around the World in 20 Days, “We watched it all the way to the ground, and in the final few seconds of its descent we saw its black shadow hurtling to meet it at the point of impact. A puff of sand showed where it slammed into the desert.”
Sights from Above
Piccard improvised a window-cleaning tool from an HF radio antenna, to which he affixed a sponge, attached to a telescoping boat hook. Throughout the flight, both men reported seeing glorious sunrises and sunsets through the portholes. The next time they stepped outside the gondola, eight days later, they were over the Pacific Ocean. Piccard wrote about the experience, “We brought the balloon down to 6,000 feet, and below us the Pacific lay totally calm…when we climbed out through the top hatch for a few moments we sat there awestruck by the utter silence —no cry of a bird, not the slightest sound of wind or sea.”
Piccard (left) and Jones pose for a celebration picture snapped by a remote control camera. As the pair drew close to the landing site, Piccard’s father spoke to him over the satellite phone. “Bertrand,” he said, “it’s fabulous what you have done, but you still have to land, and I want to remind you of something very important. Probably you’ve thought of this, but in case you haven’t, when you land, you must bend your knees.”
Makers of History
Piccard, a descendant of ballooning royalty, followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Auguste, who made the first balloon flight into the stratosphere in 1931. Auguste Piccard also invented a pressurized gondola for high-altitude flights and a bathyscaphe for deep-sea exploration. A psychiatrist, Bertrand Piccard was often philosophical about his adventure and the several attempts he made before his successful flight. As he crossed Pakistan and India during his flight in the Breitling Orbiter 2, for example, he expressed what might be thought of as a creed for balloonists, who are forever at the mercy of the wind:
As we sat out on top of the gondola, cruising at between 20 and 30 mph in complete silence, spices from cooking and incense from temples came wafting up, along with the faint shouts of children. This was emphatically not what we were meant to be doing: we were supposed to be flying fast and high, inside a pressurized cabin, in pursuit of our dream—and here we were, flying slow and low in the warm air, going nowhere.
But it was a magical experience. Having no goal any more we felt no stress, and once again I realized how important it is to accept whatever life brings.
When Jones (second from left) and Piccard came to the National Air and Space Museum in 1999, to dedicate the Breitling Orbiter 3 gondola, they met Breitling Snyder, the infant who is their balloon’s namesake. Breitling’s dad Howard (far left) had followed the many attempts at round-the-world balloon flight throughout the 1990s. “I thought it took a special kind of person to submit yourself to winds to make it around the globe,” he says today. He had emailed a congratulations to the pilots and informed them that his daughter was born at the time they were almost overhead. Breitling’s mom Sharon is on the far right.
After the Fact
Nine years later, Breitling Snyder poses with the Orbiter gondola in the National Air and Space Museum. The Snyders have been in touch with the pilots over the years, as Breitling has grown up.
At a 10th anniversary celebration of the round-the-world flight in Chateau d’Oex last March, a video link showed the audience Breitling’s 10th birthday party.
A Birthday Watch
On October 1, 2009 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Jones presented Breitling with a 10th birthday present–her first watch (a Breitling, of course)...
And Personal Tour
...and gave her a tour of the orbiter capsule, as her parents looked on.
Winds of Hope
At a hot-air balloon festival in Bristol, England, Brian Jones recently piloted a hot-air replica of the Breitling Orbiter 3. Bristol was one stop on a world tour of 11 countries to support the cause of the Winds of Hope foundation.