After riding the winds for nearly three weeks, the two pilots--Piccard, a 41-year-old Swiss psychiatrist whose grandfather invented the pressurized capsule for high-altitude ballooning, and Jones, a veteran British balloonist--took title to being the first balloonists to circumnavigate the globe by recrossing the westernmost longitude reached in their journey.
The Great Balloon Race had been won, after years of effort and scores of failed or aborted attempts, including two previous tries by Piccard. Despite exhaustion from the arduous journey, which took them over southern Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ocean, Central America and the Atlantic Ocean, the pilots decided to fly on to a landing in Egypt, near the great pyramids at Giza.
The winds didn't favor them; off course, they bounced to earth the next day, with nearly all their fuel gone, on the soft sands of the southwestern Sahara, near the isolated town of Mut, only to wait hours for a helicopter to arrive to pick them up. The final tally: since launch from Chateau d'Oex in the Swiss Alps on March 1, the team had remained aloft for 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes and covered a distance of 29,055 miles. Previous records for endurance--including one set by Piccard last year--and distance were shattered. Piccard and Jones will claim the $1 million purse offered by the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.
Like Piccard, all the contenders in this year's race planned their flights in the "window of opportunity" that runs from late December through February when the jet stream moves into the mid-latitudes and forms a great eastward-flowing, circumpolar river of air that can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour. All but one team was flying a type of hybrid craft known as a Rozier balloon, which combines helium with hot air for lift and variable ballast. And most were making their second or third run at the prize.
Rozier balloons bear as much resemblance to the brightly colored sport balloons as a dinghy to a clipper ship. Their towering envelopes 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 be pressurized to protect their pilots from temperatures well below zero and rarefied air at altitudes of nearly 30,000 feet.
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.
This year, only two other balloons flew. Britain's Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson made his third try in a Rozier balloon built by his pilot, Per Lindstrand, when he took off from Marrakech, Morocco, on December 18. Also on his crew was Chicago financier Steve Fossett, who had won admiration from his three previous attempts to circle the world flying solo. But Branson's balloon, the ICO Global, came down in the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii, on December 25 after hitting bad weather and running low on fuel. A drenching in the Pacific near Japan also ended the flight of the British Cable and Wireless balloon after flying for 17 days from Almeria, Spain. It was piloted by Andy Elson, who flew with Piccard last year.
A second flight planned by Chicago architect Kevin Uliassi in the J. Renee was scuttled on March 4, and he is now looking for sponsors for an attempt in the Southern Hemisphere. And an Australian group, Team Remax, which planned to use enormous balloons filled only with helium that was based on the design used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for stratospheric research, abandoned its flight for the second year in a row, citing design problems.
By contrast, Piccard's record-breaking flight almost made it look easy. The huge silver balloon, which towers to 180 feet, lifted off smoothly carrying its 10-by-16-foot pressurized capsule and sailed south over Spain to North Africa, where it gained elevation to join the eastward flow of the jet stream. By changing altitude to find wind currents moving in desirable directions they were able to avoid countries that had denied them permission to enter their airspace.
In addition, the Chinese had granted Piccard permission to pass over the southern part of the country. Last year, Piccard was forced to land in Myanmar because he was unable to find wind currents that would bypass China. Piccard was also granted permission to fly over Libya, which had been hostile to previous balloons. The balloonists take politics on the ground very seriously. In 1995, a racing balloon was shot down over Belarus, and two balloonists were killed.
The pilots were guided by the latest meteorological data and models from their control center in Geneva; their course was tracked by aircraft and the Global Positioning System satellites. Their eventual track took them neatly around the globe.
Even so, the effort was draining and often harrowing. Piccard and Jones worked long shifts under unrelenting stress and were often unable to sleep. The cold at high altitudes, which reaches minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit at 30,000 feet, was a constant opponent. Their water froze at night and ice accumulating on the huge gas bag had to be removed or its weight would bring down the craft.
But the rewards made the effort worthwhile. Soaring around the world in a balloon is a romantic notion without parallel. The pilots were greeted with a hero's welcome when they returned to Geneva. Accomplishing the feat was a test of human courage and ingenuity that won for Piccard and Jones that elusive and enduring accolade: First.