Image: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY, UK
Of course, nobody said it would be easy, either. The determined teams vying for a $1 million purse offered by the brewing company, Anheuser-Busch planned their flights in the "window of opportunity" that runs from late December until early February when the jet stream moves into the mid-latitudes and forms a great eastward flowing, circumpolar river of fast moving air. All are flying a type of hybrid craft known as a Rozier balloon. And, one by one, three balloons have lofted--and come down short of their goal. One more is now aloft--and two others are waiting their chance.
Fossett, who established a record for the longest balloon flight ever--more than 10,000 miles--in an around-the-world attempt last year, gained an early lead by being the first to successfully launch his balloon. Fossett's Cameron Balloon zipped across the Atlantic Ocean in record time, but then began experiencing problems with his capsule heaters and propane burners as he passed over Bulgaria on January 4; on January 5 he landed in a field in Russia--3,000 miles short of his previous record.
Another contender, Chicago architect Kevin Ulassi, took to the skies in the J. Renee from Rockford, Ill. just four hours after Fossett's launch. But his ride proved to be short. Just four hours out his balloon's helium bag burst. He rode his wounded balloon--also constructed by Cameron--to a safe landing in Indiana.
So far, the record for the shortest flight goes to Global Hilton, piloted by Dick Rutan, who won fame when he became the first to fly an aircraft around the world nonstop and without refueling, and ballooning veteran Dave Melton. After early equipment setbacks, the crew was ready to go on January 6 but waited until the January 9 for weather conditions to improve.
The launch from Albuquerque, N.M. was flawless but just 70 minutes into flight, the Cameron-built Global Hilton met the same fate as Ulassi's J. Renee: the primary helium bag burst at an altitude of more than 25,000 feet. Unlike Ulassi, Rutan and Melton abandoned ship by parachute. Rutan landed with minor injuries from a few cactus spikes; Melton suffered a broken hip when his parachute dragged him into a fence. As for the Global Hilton: it sank to Earth, rose again when the impact lightened it by knocking loose heavy propane tanks, and ended up a flaming wreckage in Texas.
All eyes are now on the Breitling Orbiter, sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker, which ascended from Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland in the midst of an international hot-air balloon festival on January 28. Shortly after launch, the crew ignored flight controllers advice and took their Cameron balloon up to 24,000 feet, apparently to find out quickly if their craft would meet the same fate as those flown by Ulassi and Rutan. The airship, which is fueled by kerosene, rather than propane, passed the impromptu test and drifted--at a disappointing 10 miles per hour-- across Italy, Greece and Israel to meet with the jet stream.