PIONEER BALLOONISTS Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes ascended above Paris on November 21, 1783.
Soaring around the world in a balloon is a romantic notion without parallel. It is one of the last "great adventures" not played out. And, most alluring of all, accomplishing the feat wins that elusive and ultimate credit: First. "Nobody remembers the name of the second person who broke the sound barrier," said balloonist Steve Fossett, shortly before he floated out of Busch Stadium in St. Louis in the Solo Spirit on New Year's Eve, marking the opening of the Great Balloon Race of 1998.

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.

SHORT STAY: Aviator Dick Rutan (right) and balloonist Dave Melton checked out of the Global Hilton after only 70 minutes--via parachute.

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.

By February 3, Orbiter had broken the flight duration record of 146 hours and 44 minutes set by Fossett during his first around-the world attempt from St. Louis in January 1997, which ended in Pakistan--although not his distance record of 10,360 miles. But the remainder of the flight was in question. China had refused to permit the balloon to fly over its territory so controllers had "parked" it in slow moving air over the Indus River. If China changes its mind, the balloon can rise directly into the jet stream. But if not, the team was considering whether to try to fly around China (a time--and fuel--consuming maneuver) or to come down in the area of Calcutta, India or in Bangladesh, thereby also establishing a new distance record.

Still waiting in the wings is a team headed by Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson. They experienced a setback on December 9 when the envelope of the Virgin Global Challenger broke loose from the gondola and flew off on its own from Marrakech, Morocco. A new envelope quickly constructed in England by Lindstrand Balloons is now beig tested in Morocco. Another group of hopefuls, crewing the Dymocks Flyer, plans to attempt the feat in the Southern Hemisphere, flying a balloon based on the designs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unmanned high-altitude balloons. They await friendly winds in Alice Springs, Australia.

ASTONISHED. Richard Branson watches the envelope of Virgin Global Challenger fly off by itself on December 9. The team plans another attempt.

The history of balloon flight dates to 1783 when two French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier discovered that filling a bag with hot air would cause it to rise. They demonstrated their principle at Annonay, France, on June 5, 1783 with an unmanned balloon made of linen and paper. Amazed villagers watched as it rose to an altitude nearing 6,000 feet and landed in a field about a mile away. Just months later, on November 21, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes became the first humans to fly in a manmade craft when they ascended from the center of Paris in a Montgolfier balloon.

Early hot air balloons had to be fueled on the ground (or carry dangerous open fires aloft) and, rather inconveniently, they came back down when they cooled. So they were soon replaced by envelopes filled with buoyant gases, such as hydrogen and helium. These balloons continued to rack up records for long duration flights. Balloons were used by the military as observation posts (and a few fairly futile attempts to drop bombs) and have a rich history of carrying scientific payloads into the upper atmosphere. Indeed, the first astronauts were balloonists who ascended to the edge of the atmosphere in a 1950s program known as the Manhigh Project..

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration operates a Scientific Ballooning Program that has collected data about cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. Fossett, the only balloonist in the current race with a scientific project, was testing an "aerobot" designed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to probe the atmospheres of Mars and Venus.

But when it comes to long-distance flight, gas filled balloons are also limited. As the sun heats the gas in the envelope, the balloon rises uncontrollably and so gas has to be vented; when the gas cools, the balloon sinks and pilots must drop ballast to maintain altitude. Sooner or later, they run out of gas or ballast and the journey is over. The problem was solved in the 1960's when Edward Yost equipped a balloon with an onboard propane burner. This device allows pilots to control the balloon's buoyancy by changing the amount of heat injected into the envelope. His innovation created the present boom in sport ballooning and opened the prospect of an around-the-world flight.

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.

MODERN ROZIER BALLOON is a hybrid that utilizes buoyant helium as well as hot air.

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.