Around the World in 20 Days: The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flightby Bertrand Piccard, Brian Jones
In this dramatic narrative, adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the pilots of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, recount their record-breaking, first-ever around-the-world balloon flight in March 1999. During their 30,000-mile voyage, they faced many unexpected challenges and near-disasters, including a harrowing six-and-a-half-day trip across the Pacific… See more details below
In this dramatic narrative, adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the pilots of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, recount their record-breaking, first-ever around-the-world balloon flight in March 1999. During their 30,000-mile voyage, they faced many unexpected challenges and near-disasters, including a harrowing six-and-a-half-day trip across the Pacific when the balloon came dangerously close to plunging into the ocean. Using their logbook and journals, as well as photographs taken on board, Piccard and Jones have brought their marathon flight vividly to life, capturing the emotion of their many moments of high tension, as well as the humor and camaraderie that helped them persevere.
Bertrand Piccard (Lausanne, Switzerland) comes from a family of scientific explorers: his grandfather was the first man to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, while his father dove to the deepest part of the ocean in a bathyscaphe. Brian Jones (Wiltshire, UK) spent thirteen years with England's Royal Air Force and is now the United Kingdom's chief flying instructor. He was the flight's project manager before becoming a pilot of the balloon.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 9.21(w) x 6.14(h) x 0.72(d)
Read an Excerpt
For everyone involved in the preparation of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, the winter of 1998-9 was a time of high anxiety and tension. My two earlier attempts to fly round the world had failed, one after six hours, the other after nine days; and our sponsors, the Breitling watch company, had made it clear that our third balloon would be the last: there would be no Orbiter 4. The race was on, as five other teams were making ready to launch in various parts of the globe. A round-the-world balloon flight was generally accepted as the last great challenge in aviation, maybe even the greatest, because it had to combine the power of technology with the unpredictability of nature.
We had little information about the Remax team, who were proposing to take off from Australia and fly a colossal balloon at extreme height in the stratosphere, but all the other starters were well known to us. In the United States Jacques Soukup and Kevin Uliassi each had a balloon under construction. Andy Elson, a former colleague of ours, was preparing the Cable & Wireless balloon for a launch in Spain; but our most dangerous competitor was the tycoon Richard Branson, whose ICO Global Challenger was nearing completion in Morocco.
After working on the Orbiter project for five years, I think I had become slightly obsessed with its importance. Hoping all the time that I might manage a tremendous achievement, I was driven on by a feeling of relentless pressure: even when I was cutting the lawn at home, I was thinking, `Maybe it's foolish to bedoing this rather than devoting more time and thought to some detail I may have forgotten.' Whenever I turned my attention to anything not connected with the balloon, I felt like a naughty child who had abandoned his homework to play in the garden.
After two failures I was well aware that the people around me didn't know whether to trust me or not. Scepticism increased still further when, in November 1998, I decided to change my co-pilot, asking Tony Brown, who had been going to fly with me, to stand down, and appointing in his place Brian Jones, the project manager.
Under Brian's calm and able direction, construction of the envelope and gondola had proceeded well at the Bristol firm Cameron Balloons. In purely technical terms we were well advanced: on 16 November the gondola, envelope and associated gear were loaded on to two forty-foot lorries and began the journey to our launch site at Château d'Oex, the ski village and ballooning centre 3,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps. We were ready to go at any time from early December but we were held up by factors outside our control: the war in Iraq, which meant it was unsafe to fly over that country; the restrictions for overflying China; and most important of all the weather.
For the all-important task of finding and predicting wind patterns that would carry us round the globe, we had retained the services of two outstanding meteorologists, Luc Trullemans, a Belgian, and Pierre Eckert, a Swiss, who soon proved themselves absolute magicians. At first, though, we were all frustrated. Several times the met men telephoned to say that they saw a good weather slot coming up but that the winds would carry the balloon to Iraq or to prohibited parts of China and so we had to pass up the chance of launching.
On 18 December tension increased dramatically when Richard Branson took off from Marrakesh. On this, his third round-the-world attempt, he was accompanied by the two other veteran balloonists, Per Lindstrand and Steve Fossett a formidably experienced team and his equipment was as high-tech as money could buy. The chances of his succeeding seemed all too good. `I know it's not a normal race,' my wife Jo wrote in her diary, `but we felt as if we'd been left behind.'
The next week was tough going. We tried to concentrate on our own preparations, but one eye was inevitably on Branson's progress and he did us no good when, without permission, he entered Tibetan air space and flew up over central China, explaining that it was impossible to comply with the authorities' instructions to land because of the vertiginous mountain terrain. Earlier in the year Bertrand had led a delegation to China, where he negotiated permission for balloons to cross the country using a precisely specified corridor; now it looked as though Branson had finished our chances, for the Chinese immediately banned all further balloon flights for the duration.
Then, on Christmas Day, we heard that Branson had been carried southwards by a low-pressure system over the Pacific, and forced to ditch in the sea near Hawaii. When his balloon landed in the water, the mechanism that was supposed to release the flying cables and separate the envelope from the gondola failed to operate, so the capsule was dragged along the surface by the wind at 20 mph. Fortunately the crew managed to escape and were rescued none the worse, but the gondola and envelope were lost to the sea.
Our feelings were mixed, to say the least. We regarded Branson as a friendly rival, but now he had increased our difficulties enormously, and it took nearly six weeks of intensive negotiation with the Chinese to win back the permission we had taken such trouble to gain. Not until the beginning of February 1999 did they agree to let us overfly the country, and even then they would only allow us to cross the southern part, below the 26th parallel. This meant that our weather men had a tiny target, 6,000 miles away, at which to aim.
Working from forecasts and computer models, Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert searched ceaselessly for a weather window that would give us the necessary track. What they had to do was predict, from existing patterns, the connections and interactions between different systems of wind that would give us the trajectory we needed a task of astonishing complexity.
At last on Tuesday, 9 February, Luc spotted a possible slot for the following Sunday and Monday. On Friday the Breitling plane flew to Bristol to bring out the launch crew, and on Saturday, amid growing excitement, the gondola was fuelled up, the envelope was laid out on the launch field at Château d'Oex, and a tanker bringing the liquid helium set out from Paris on its eight-hour drive. (Because commercial vehicles are not allowed to drive in France at weekends, special dispensation had to be obtained for this journey.) But then, on Sunday, Luc and Pierre saw conditions worsening on the first part of the route, to North Africa, and to everyone's immense disappointment the attempt had to be called off. From that moment, the press and public stopped believing we had any chance of success.
It may be that in the long run Branson did us a service, for the Chinese ban made both Kevin Uliassi and Jacques Soukup abandon their attempts. This left only one immediate competitor, Andy Elson, who had flown with Bertrand in Orbiter 2. On the following Wednesday, 17 February, Andy and Colin Prescott took off in the Cable & Wireless balloon from Almería, in southeast Spain.
This created still greater stress in our camp. With another capable crew on its way and reports of good progress coming back, time seemed to slow to a snail's pace: every day that passed reduced our hopes of catching up, until finally our chance of winning the race appeared to have gone.
A few months earlier, I had had a very strong intuition that this attempt was going to succeed, but now I was perplexed by all the problems confronting us. The weather was terrible, with a lot of unseasonable rain and avalanches claiming lives all over the Alps. February was drawing to a close and normally the end of the month marked the end of the season for round-the-world ballooning attempts because thereafter wind patterns were not usually so favourable. Convinced that the weather window had closed, our team dispersed from the launch site at Château d'Oex, and I took my family to ski at Les Diablerets. Stefano Albinati called me from Breitling to suggest that we find a day for a press conference at which we would announce that our plans for the year were cancelled. We set the date as 8 March.
I was in despair. The next day my wife Michèle and I invited some friends to dinner in our rented chalet. To cheer me up they brought along some bottles of fine wine, and we had a happy evening. That was a decisive moment for me because it was a reminder that, whatever might happen, the most important thing was not to win success and glory but to have true friendship. Surrounded by close friends, it would be easier to cope with all the people who were sure to criticize yet another failure.
But, early next morning, the telephone rang. It was Luc, full of excitement. `Bertrand!' he exclaimed. `Listen. There's a really good slot coming up on the first of March.'
`You're joking,' I told him.
`Not at all,' he said, and he described what he and Pierre were seeing on their computers: over the western Mediterranean a big depression was forming, and they felt sure they could swing the balloon round the edge of it, anti-clockwise, so that after flying down over France and Spain we would be carried eastwards over Africa on just the trajectory they had been seeking.
I was amazed, because I thought our chance had already gone. Andy Elson was already seven days out, over the Sudan and heading for Saudi Arabia. But now Luc's call gave me a tremendously strong feeling that we were faced with a serious possibility. Before earlier flights we had established a system of alerts. If things were looking good, the first warning to stand by went out four days in advance. At launch minus three, the alert would be confirmed, and the launch team of eight would be called out from Bristol to join the pilots at Château d'Oex. At launch minus two the rest of the team would assemble. And so, on 25 February, our first warning went out.
My wife Jo and I had been in Château d'Oex since the middle of November, so when the team decided to disband it was a major undertaking, as well as a major disappointment, to pack everything up and head for home. The car was full to the gunwales, and we had just crossed the border into France when Bertrand came through on our cell phone phone and said, `Brian drive slowly! There's just a chance we may go.' Surprised and a little doubtful, we stopped near Mâcon, where we had something to eat.
Then Alan Noble, the flight director, phoned through and said, `Maybe you'd better turn round.' Bertrand rang again, more cautious. `Better not turn round yet,' he said, `because then we won't be tempting fate.' After some debate Jo and I decided to carry on: the idea of unloading all our gear again in Château d'Oex was awful. We felt it would be better to drive home even if we had to fly back to Switzerland the next day. If we could touch base in Wiltshire, unpack everything and reload with clean clothes, we could somehow close a chapter and make a fresh start. We had this feeling, almost superstitious, that we should make a clean break. So we abandoned plans for a night stop in France and headed back to England as fast as possible.
We reached home at midnight and in the event we had to turn straight round. By 10 o'clock next morning, Friday, we were boarding an aircraft at Heathrow, bound for Geneva, along with three members of the technical team Kieran Sturrock, Pete Johnson and Bill Sly. Also on its way was the eight-man launch team from Cameron Balloons, driving a van from Bristol because they had to bring specialist tools with them.
On the plane the cabin crew were in such high spirits that one of them gave his entire briefing as a take-off of Sean Connery doing it so well that you could easily imagine it was James Bond in charge of the public address system. Some of the passengers didn't realize what was going on, but others enjoyed it immensely.
Also with us was Brian Smith, one of the controllers who were going to monitor the flight from Geneva. Now he made the most of his status as a former British Airways skipper by sending a note up to the captain to inform him he had part of the Breitling Orbiter 3 team on board. The response was immediate. We were all moved up from our economy seats in the back of the aircraft to Club Class, where we were plied with champagne. When the captain briefed the passengers, he said how pleased he was to welcome us on board. Later the cabin service director presented me with a teddy bear and asked me to take him round the world, suggesting that if the bear completed the circuit he might raise a lot of money at auction for a children's charity. I took the little brown creature, wearing his Union Jack T-shirt, and stuffed him in my bag. For obvious reasons we called him Sean.
Back in Château d'Oex, I called Alan, who was on his way out. I found him in a negative frame of mind. He was convinced that Bertrand and I were not really trying to go round the world. Rather, he thought, we were desperate to get the balloon into the air, just to make a flight of some kind. His sceptical attitude spread to the launch team, and I tried to gee the crew up by saying, `Look this is for real. Bertrand and I have been talking to our met people, and there's absolutely no way we're going to call a flight unless there's a significant chance of going all the way round.'
It was strange to realize that maybe only five people were taking the alert seriously. Everyone else thought we were simply out to make advertising for Breitling by getting the balloon into the air for a few days. Brian and I, on the other hand, were perfectly clear that we would take off only if we had a really good chance. Luc and Pierre, our met men, were still insisting that the weather window was the best we'd had all year.
Alan remained cynical. `If you'd had this slot at the beginning of the season, you'd never have taken it,' he told them.
`Of course we would!' they replied.
His expression softened slightly as he said, `So you're really serious?'
`Absolument!' cried Luc. `We're convinced.'
Preparations went ahead at a brisker rate. The gondola was sitting on its trolley on the floor of the workshop in Château d'Oex. Above it on one side was a gallery full of armchairs and tables, together with a kettle and a coffee machine. It was there, during the past three months, that we had held all our discussions and brainstorming sessions about how to solve technical problems and evolve the best possible systems. Now the place came alive again, and the atmosphere grew tense, as we analysed the weather patterns and debated whether to go or not.
By Sunday, 28 February, the gondola was out on the launch field, with the envelope of the balloon stretched out, but still wrapped, in a long sausage beyond it. Inside the workshop we all sat around and struggled to take the crucial decision. Some of us were sunk in the armchairs which were covered in brown Dralon and had no castors, so that they were very low and some were perched on higher seats, giving the whole gathering a slightly ridiculous appearance.
Should we carry on or not? I was completely tiraillé torn apart inside. My longing to go was dragging me forward, but my fear of failure was pulling me back.
Brian and I both knew this was our last chance for 1999. We could cancel the launch and keep our balloon for next year with the risk that somebody else would succeed during the summer in the southern hemisphere. On the other hand, we could take a chance and go. If we succeeded, we would become the first; but if the weather turned out less than perfect, we would fail, and have no balloon to make another attempt later.
So at one moment I was saying to myself, `It's too late in the season. Let's stop. Let's keep the balloon for next year.' A second later I was thinking, `No, we can't do that. We have to take the risk and go. But only if the weather is going to be perfect and how do we know that it will be?' Before the balloon had any chance to go round in circles, my mind was doing just that.
Alan and Don Cameron, head of the firm that built the balloon, were still far from positive. `From the weather maps we've got,' they said, `We just don't see how you can get round the world.'
`Of course you can't do it by looking at maps,' retorted Luc. `You can only do it by working out trajectory calculations, because when the balloon is moving the weather will be moving as well. The high and low pressures are shifting all the time. It's not a static situation it's dynamic.' He looked at Alan and said, `You get them up there, and I'll get them round.'
The pressure on Brian and me seemed even heavier, and we knew we could not control fate, or the future. I said that when the time for a final discussion came, I would not push in any direction, but rather listen to everyone else's arguments. I strongly felt that if I kept quiet, fate would have a chance to declare itself and bring us all to the right decision.
At the crucial meeting we two hardly spoke. Luc and Pierre held the floor, confirming that the window still looked excellent. Even then Alan was doubtful, and he asked, `How long do you think the flight will take?'
After a short conference the met men replied, `Sixteen days.' Most of us had been thinking of a figure more like eighteen or nineteen, and for the first time Alan smiled, for sixteen was the figure he had been holding in his mind. `If you say sixteen days, I say yes for the take-off. Any more, and you might not have enough fuel for safety.'
`I don't want you to fall out of the sky in the middle of the Pacific or the Atlantic,' he added. `But now I think we can go.'
`All right,' I said. `Everybody has to vote individually because if we fail, I don't want anyone to start saying, "I was against it all along". And if we succeed, I don't want the ones who were against it claiming, "I was for it all the time".'
It was exactly 1 p.m. when we held a show of hands. The decision was unanimous: to take off. `OK,' said Alan. `Now we need to tell the technicians to go ahead immediately' and he phoned them out on the launch field. After the severe disappointment of the cancelled take-off two weeks earlier, they had been awaiting our decision with some anxiety.
Earlier in the day Luc and Pierre had assured us that it was not going to rain in the immediate future, and the technical team had begun to assemble the envelope, attaching the Velcro and seventy-odd karabiners to cobble together the outer layer, which consisted of the top tent, the waistcoat and the hot-air cone. Then it started to drizzle, putting them in a dilemma.
During the winter a tremendous amount of snow had fallen and we had used a piste-basher to compact the covering on the launch field. On top of the snow the team had laid out immense square sheets of black polythene, meant for covering silage pits, to stop the balloon freezing to the ground. But heavy rain would be disastrous: if the envelope got soaked and the temperature fell below zero during the night, the fabric would freeze to the groundsheets and might have torn when the envelope started to inflate. Another problem was that Velcro does not seal properly when wet a failing which had already been responsible for the deaths of two balloonists.
On the last day before take-off Bertrand and I kept away from the launch site as much as possible. We stayed together all the time, going shopping, walking about, sitting and talking over a coffee, all the while building our relationship. We wanted to escape from the pressure of the media and the public, and to be more relaxed for the take-off than Bertrand had been for Orbiter 1 and 2.
The gondola was already loaded, but in the supermarket we bought a few items of fresh food bread, cheese, margarine and fruit. From the Hôtel de Ville, where we were staying, we got meals pre-cooked and vacuum-packed: salmon, chicken, emu steak and vegetarian burgers. The fresh food would last only a few days, but already on board were nineteen days' worth of dehydrated rations, as well as 150 litre-and-a-half bottles of water, stowed beneath the floor. Although Bertrand would have preferred carbonated water, we decided it was potentially dangerous as the escaping bubbles might produce more carbon dioxide than our breathing and saturate the filters in the cabin. In a last-minute drive to save weight we discarded some tins of mousse-type puddings, deciding we could do without them. We took no alcohol not even a bottle of champagne to celebrate with, if celebration were called for. Our only luxury was two small tins of pâté truffé.
One factor to our advantage was that no other launches were in prospect. Earlier in the season, when several teams were preparing for take-off, Camerons had had to provide launch crews for all their balloons. Now that we were outside the normal weather window and everyone else had given up, there was no competition: we got the pick of the bunch, and the crew who came out from Bristol were the ones who had designed and built the envelope. Among them was Don Cameron himself, a canny Scot nearing sixty, founder and owner of the firm; with him came Dave Boxall, Gavin Hailes and Andy Booth, all of whom we particularly wanted to have at the launch.
On Sunday evening we had supper in the Hôtel de Ville, our last meal on earth well, for some time at least. To put it like that sounds as if we were going to the guillotine and that was almost how it felt. It was a strange time altogether. Then we went to bed for a short rest before the big day.
According to the weather forecast, the morning of 1 March 1999 should have been fine. But before dawn the valley which cradles Château d'Oex was full of mist, and the sky was overcast. In the Hôtel de Ville Brian and I were both wide awake by 5 a.m., well aware that for the past twenty hours technicians had been working out on the launch field, a few hundred yards away, getting the balloon ready for take-off. After five years of preparation, of false starts and dashed hopes, the moment of truth was upon us.
I woke with a start, adrenaline already pumping, and immediately thought, `What's happening on the field?' I grabbed the phone, called Alan Noble on his cell phone, and asked, `How's it going?'
`Bertrand,' he replied, `you should be asleep.'
WHAT?' Was everything over? Had they failed to inflate the balloon?
`You ought to be sleeping,' he repeated. `We don't need you for two hours at least.'
`What's happening in two hours?'
`You're going. Everything's perfect. The balloon's standing up, almost fully inflated. There's no wind.'
`Alan!' I cried. `I can't possibly sleep any more. I'm coming now.'
Immediately I felt a complete change in the physiology of my body. No more relaxation or trying to rest. I was one hundred per cent alert, ready to go. It was still dark, and when I went downstairs there was nobody in the restaurant except Brian, Jo, myself and one waitress, who had got up early to look after us. Brian ate a croissant, but I couldn't manage one because my mouth was too dry. Instead I had some muesli cereal and tea, but I was in such a state of nerves that when I went back to my room to brush my teeth and pick up my bag, I started to get stomach contractions and threw up. `That's incredible,' I thought. `Such a thing has never happened before. I've never been so afraid.' It made me realize that I was facing the most important moment of my life.
It so happened that 1 March was my forty-first birthday. The year before, I had taken off in Breitling Orbiter 2 on my grandfather's birthday, and I had felt then that it was a sign of fate, that I was going to succeed. The intuition proved false: we failed. So now, on my own birthday, I thought, `Maybe this is something I have to do myself, and not count on family fortune.'
I hardly slept at all. Jo and I were together, and there were a thousand things I wanted to say, but I just didn't feel like talking. I lay there wondering if she was asleep, and Jo she told me later did the same.
I felt just as nervous as Bertrand.
At 6 a.m. we drove the short distance to the launch field, passing quickly through the deserted streets of the village. The temperature was a couple of degrees below zero, and because of the mist we could see neither the stars nor the tops of the surrounding mountains, which rose three or four thousand feet above us. Then, as we turned on to the main road, our balloon came into view.
The sight stopped us dead. This was the moment about which we had been talking and dreaming for months and now the reality came as a shock. In a blaze of arc lights the slender, towering envelope was gleaming brilliant silver against the black sky. One hundred and seventy feet high tall as the leaning Tower of Pisa, not far short of Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square, more than half the height of the Statue of Liberty it rose like a colossal exclamation mark, emphasizing the vast scale of our undertaking. Escaping helium eddied round it in white clouds, like dry ice. At its base the chunky horizontal cylinder of the gondola, painted fluorescent red, was partially hidden by the double row of titanium fuel tanks ranged along each side. Men were swarming round it, some holding ropes, others manipulating hoses. The size of it was awe-inspiring. The volume of the envelope the balloon itself was 650,000 cubic feet, and the whole assembly, including the gondola and fuel, weighed 9.2 tons. This was the majestic giant in which we were going to commit ourselves to the sky.
`Can you believe it!' Bertrand exclaimed. `That's ours!'
As we drove slowly towards it, with the balloon growing bigger and bigger in our eyes, my mind flew back thirty years to the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In 1969 I had watched enthralled on television as the crew went aboard, and now I felt we were re-enacting the scene. I knew Bertrand had seen the Apollo launch live at Cape Kennedy, but now he was feeling such strong emotion that he didn't mention it. We were both wearing navy blue flying suits made of a soft, fireproof fabric, with the jackets which Breitling had specially created for us over the top. Our names and blood-groups were inscribed on chest-badges, and we carried survival knives strapped to the trousers of our suits. `I think we look quite professional,' said Bertrand quietly as we approached the waiting crowd. `If only these people knew how frightened we are inside!'
We parked our Chrysler Voyager next to the team's vehicles. The moment we got out, we were swallowed by the crowd, and to escape from all the people we had to run to the press conference in a building immediately beside the field. Word had gone round that the flight was on, and the room was full but still there were only about a third as many people as at the launch of Orbiter 2. Then, there had been reporters standing on chairs and tables, trying to get a view. Now, after twenty-odd failures, very few people still believed that it was possible for a balloon to fly round the world, and it was difficult to find anything new to say. Alan made a brief speech. Then Luc and Pierre gave a meteorological briefing to the cameras. Bertrand was eager to get into the gondola and concentrate on our pre-flight checks, so he kept his remarks uncharacteristically short.
I had already noticed that when he and I appeared together he always spoke of flying with far greater eloquence than I could muster. Now I thought that something flippant would be best. `Because this is Bertrand's birthday,' I said, `we made a collection. Everyone was incredibly generous, Breitling particularly, but our difficulty was that we didn't know what to give him. We couldn't decide between a flight in a balloon and a round-the-world holiday trip so, as a compromise, we thought we'd give him both.'
The Breitling publicity girls came up on to the platform, gave him a croissant with a single candle stuck in it (to represent a cake) and everyone sang `Happy Birthday.'
Outside, the technicians were continuing their preparations. The tanker truck full of liquid helium, at minus 200°C, had arrived from Paris, and as the eighteen-man crew from Carbagas continued to inflate the balloon, under the orders of Roland Wicki, helium pouring through the vaporizers was making a continuous loud whistle. Firemen from Château d'Oex were helping to hold the envelope in position with ropes. Inside the cramped gondola Kieran Sturrock, our electronics specialist and master technician, was going through a long list of checks. The only fault he found was a slight leak from the cylinder of pressurized nitrogen which powered the valves used to release surplus helium from the top of the envelope. He tightened the connection as much as he could, though without quite managing to close the seal fully.
The launch teams had started inflation at 3 a.m., and throughout the second half of the night everything went well. Then, as dawn broke, the wind began to blow. Gentle at first, it started to gust through the valley -- the last thing any of us wanted. The balloon was already at its full height and beginning to sway about: any strong wind would be dangerous, as it might damage the envelope and dash the gondola against the ground. In the worst possible scenario, one of the tanks of liquid propane might split, explode and engulf the whole contraption in flames. It was clear that we had to take off as soon as possible.
The time came to say goodbye to our families a moment we had both been dreading. Every time I set eyes on Michèle and our three daughters Estelle (eight), Oriane (six) and Solange (four) I wondered, `Can it be right, risking so much in trying to go round the world?' I felt my conviction steadily diminishing.
At my earlier attempts the girls had started off full of confidence, but as more and more journalists asked them, `Aren't you afraid something might happen to your daddy?' they began to be fearful. Then, after I had twice returned from failure not only alive but in good shape, they became confident again, and positively looked forward to further take-offs. So now they were happy enough. I took them in my arms and said, `You see how wonderful this balloon is. This time we're really going.' That made them a little sad, especially Estelle, but none of them seemed really worried. More important to them was the fact that this was a Monday, and they were missing school.
For Michèle it was harder. But when I thanked her for backing me up so nobly through five years of struggle, she remained absolutely steady and only said, `Be careful. I trust you not to take risks in an attempt to bring off something if it's impossible.'
Next I went to my father Jacques and thanked him for passing down such a great taste for adventure, for enabling me to meet all the fabulous people, astronauts and explorers with whom he had come into contact through all his underwater expeditions. Those men were the heroes of my childhood giants who had come to our house for lunch or dinner and shown me how beautiful life could be if you explored the world and human nature. I thanked my father for giving me the energy with which to prepare for our journey round the earth. A telling photograph taken by Bill Sly, a member of the balloon team, shows both of us with tears in our eyes. We were not overcome or hysterical just deeply moved; and although we were surrounded by cameramen taking pictures, both of us drew strength from those moments of intimacy, a private island in the middle of the throng.
I also went up to Thedy Schneider, head of Breitling; but, knowing that he doesn't like to talk a lot in emotional circumstances, I simply said, `Thank you for trusting me.'
I, too, found the moment of parting incredibly difficult. I was anxious that I might break down in front of the cameras: I thought that if Jo could hold herself together, I would be all right, but if she began to cry, I would have a problem because I might not be able to speak. When I went up to her, in the middle of a mass of people, she was absolutely stoical: she stood there looking supremely confident. I felt very proud of her. When I gave her a kiss, she just said, `Go do it' and that was it. I thought, `Thank God,' and turned away. Not until I saw a video film of the parting, months later, did I realize that as I moved off tears were streaming down her face.
At 8 a.m. Brian and I climbed into the gondola, going in head-first through the rear hatch. We had made it an absolute rule that nobody would enter the capsule wearing outdoor shoes a precaution designed to keep out any moisture that might condense on the portholes and obscure our vision as we climbed. So we approached in spare pairs of boots, and left them outside. The press had insisted that we stick our heads out of the hatch, and this we did, one at a time, while they took pictures. Then we took particular care to prepare the hatch correctly, so that we would not lose pressure as we climbed. My father came with a handkerchief to clean the seal minutely before we closed the clamp, as he had done so often before diving in his submarines.
All the time the wind was becoming more boisterous. High above us the silvery Mylar envelope was crackling and crisping, as if someone was wrapping a gigantic turkey in tinfoil. Hair-raising noises started to emanate from the gondola itself. Lashed beneath it was a raft of polystyrene blocks a foot thick to elevate the gondola and so hold the fuel tanks clear of the ground. As the balloon heaved and tugged, the smooth underbelly of the capsule started to rub on the polystyrene, and the screeching, creaking sounds were appalling. When the whole package began to lift clear of the ground and was jerked five or six feet into the air before being smashed down again, the onlookers thought the gondola itself was cracking and coming apart. The movement became so violent that the fire crew decided to lash our tether to their five-ton truck rather than risk the main strongpoint pulling out of the ground.
Inside, we were getting thrown about as we struggled to complete our pre-flight checks:
`Frequency one one nine decimal one seven.'
`Fire extinguisher safety pins.'
`Open for check.'
`Two red lights.'
And so on for more than fifty items.
Concentration was difficult because of the noise and because stores and equipment kept tumbling out of the bunks on to the floor, blocking the narrow corridor along the middle of the capsule. Yet even when we were ready we had to stay anchored for a few more minutes: with the weight of us two on board the balloon needed more helium for lift-off, and the gas crew continued to pump. Bertrand was talking to Alan Noble on his cell phone phone, but for the moment we had handed over control to the ground crew and there was nothing we could do to help them.
My first tasks after take-off lay outside the gondola, so I climbed out through the top hatch and sat aloft, holding tight as we were thrown about. There was no danger of falling off because round the roof of the capsule ran the load frame, a heavy, double-decker rail about knee-high, which supported the load of the gondola and fuel tanks. We called this ring of stainless steel `the playpen' because it gave a feeling of security, and beyond it were the titanium outriggers that carried the propane cylinders.
All round us spectators were crowding close, shouting with excitement, unaware of the danger they were in. If the balloon had split or been blown over, several of them might have been injured as the heavy fabric collapsed on them. Any one of our thirty-two propane tanks could have ruptured and exploded. If it had, there would have been an instant, devastating fireball. As it was, with the gondola being jerked around, one of the tanks got caught up on a cable: its lower end was dragged out of vertical alignment, and when it came free again it swung violently against the side of the hull. What with the wind, the shouts, the clashing of the tanks and the screeching of the polystyrene, direct voice communication was impossible.
A hundred yards away across the packed snow, members of the Balloon Club of Château d'Oex had been preparing a hot-air balloon for take-off, with an experienced pilot in charge. Its aim was to ascend ahead of us and find out the state of the wind layers in the valley, as well as taking up journalists and photographers. The crew got it more or less inflated, but then, to our dismay, we watched them pulling it down again because the gusts had become too strong. When I saw that I thought, `Now our problems are starting.' Brian's face turned paler and paler until it was white as a sheet.
In spite of the difficulties, neither of us considered calling off our own launch. I felt fatalistic. I knew the balloon could easily be ruined taking off in these conditions. If we sustained damage as we left the ground, we might have to come down again almost immediately and a forced landing in the mountains would be extremely dangerous. First, we would have to find somewhere relatively flat, and then there would be a high risk of the propane cylinders exploding on impact. Nevertheless, we both felt there was no way back: we had to carry on. During an interview the day before I had said that if we didn't go, everybody would think us idiots; if we went, and failed, everyone would dismiss us as incompetent; and if we went and succeeded, everybody would say, `Well, of course, it was perfectly simple.' So there was nothing for it but to take off and do what we thought was right.
For a while I too went up on top of the capsule. By then it was full daylight, and although the sky was still grey, the sun came burning through the mist and caught the top of the envelope. In the nick of time Luc and Pierre's prediction was proving right: the departure window they had forecast was above us, and the next front was already moving down from the north.
Three professional air traffic controllers from Geneva had volunteered their services for our flight, and two of them Greg Moegli and Patrick Schelling had established a control post in Château d'Oex itself. Their immediate task was to keep other aircraft away from the balloon's initial flight path, and Greg later described the operation as one of the craziest he had ever known. There were five helicopters, two airships and two fixed-wing aircraft circling the launch site; all the pilots were demanding permission to come as close as possible, and all were in a state of over-excitement.
On the ground the crowd had become enormous. At the last minute word had gone out that we really were on our way, and several thousand people had assembled. To one of them it seemed that the balloon had taken on a life of its own. `It was like an animal,' she said, `roaring to go.' Along with many others, she thought the fire engine was about to go round the world as well.
The plan had been that the ground crew would weigh us off, tell us when they were ready to cut the tether, and give us a countdown from ten to one. In the event none of that happened. Unable to risk disaster any longer, Alan simply waited for one more big bounce and at 9.09 a.m. local time 08:09 Zulu time at a moment when the balloon was rising, severed the rope with his Swiss army knife. Sky News later described the take-off as `not so much a launch more of an escape'. (Zulu time, designated by the letter `Z', is the international term for Greenwich mean time. We remained on Zulu time throughout the flight.)
Just after we had lifted free, I climbed down into the cabin again and stood with my head out of the upper hatch, while Brian remained squatting on the roof. As we lifted away the noise was incredible. People were screaming at the tops of their voices to wish us good luck. They had waited months for this moment, and now they really let go. The intensity of their feeling brought tears to our eyes. The radio commentator was yelling so loud that he nearly swallowed his microphone, as if at the finish of some race. The bells of both churches, Protestant and Catholic, were ringing wildly. The fire engine's siren was wailing. The pent-up tension and excitement seemed to propel us into the sky.
Meet the Author
BERTRAND PICCARD is a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry. He comes from a family of scientific explorers: his grandfather was the first man to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, while his father dove to the deepest part of the ocean in a bathyscaphe. He lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.
BRIAN JONES spent thirteen years with England's Royal Air Force and is now the United Kingdomás chief flying instructor. He was the flight's project manager before becoming a pilot of the balloon. He lives in Wiltshire, England.
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