The balloons in the current race bear as much resemblance to the brightly colored sport balloons as a dinghy to a clipper ship. Their towering envelopes, which are more than 120 feet high, are pulled upright by a bag filled with helium; below is a cone-shaped gas bag that is filled with hot air. The hot air bag functions as variable ballast, allowing the balloonists to control their altitude. They can even alter their course to a limited extent by moving up and down to seek air currents flowing in the most desirable direction. Shiny aluminized coatings reduce the amount of heat gained from the sun and limit heat loss at night.
Nor are the capsules dangling below the traditional wicker baskets; they more resemble lunar spacecraft, ringed with cylinders of propane and helium, and equipped with high-tech navigation gear. They must protect their pilots from temperatures well below zero and rarefied air. The first two pilots--Fossett and Ulassi--flew in unpressurized gondolas. Their plan was to fly at an altitude of about 24,000 feet, where they would be subject to adverse weather but the technology is better tested. They expected to make the journey in about 15 days at speeds ranging from 40 to 150 miles per hour.
The other contenders aim to fly higher and faster. These teams fly in pressurized gondolas so their balloons can carry them to altitudes of nearly 30,000 feet. They will sail above most clouds and storms in faster wind currents, but their planned altitude is very close to the present record established for hot air balloons.
No matter how fast and high they may fly, all the balloonists are at the mercy of the wind--and the politics on the ground. The jet stream is likely to bring their silent airships over countries that do not look kindly on "airspace violations." After frantic negotiations, Fossett was granted permission to fly over Libya; clearance arrived only after he had managed to alter his course to take him to the north over Russia. And the Russians have not always been hospitable. In 1995, a racing balloon was shot down over Russia, and two balloonists were killed.
Owning one of these craft is about as easy as buying an America's Cup Yacht. So, not surprisingly, around-the-world balloon racing has become the gentleman's sport of the late 20th Century. These balloonists are hardly "daring young men in their flying machines." They not very young and are either extremely well-heeled or well-funded.
Fossett, 53, made a fortune in the commodities market and has spent much of it leaving his name in record books. He holds yachting speed records and has swum the English Channel and run the Iditarod dog sled race. He is president of Marathon Securities Inc. in Chicago and a trustee of Washington University in St. Louis, his official sponsor. Aviator Dick Rutan, 59, was backed by Hilton Hotels' scion Barron Hilton (as well as Pepsi Cola). Richard Branson, 47, is the maverick British billionaire who founded Virgin Atlantic Airways and other ventures. He is a veteran balloonist; this is his third around the world attempt.
As Rutan said while Fossett was sailing toward Europe: "It's a race; it's not over until its over." And despite the ups and downs, the remaining contenders are undeterred. It may be over this year...or next...or... There are still plenty of possibilities to win a place in the pantheon of world records. Even if one of the remaining teams goes all the way, the solo grail will remain--and Fossett and others will undoubtedly pursue it. And the new duration record is just waiting for someone to break.