Around the World in 20 Days: The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flightby Bertrand Piccard, Brian Jones
"A roller-coaster adventure of emotional highs and lows." ?Library Journal
Into the real thin air: The gripping story of the history-making around-the-world balloon flight as told by the pilots themselves. In this dramatic and inspiring account, adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the pilots of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, tell the/i>
"A roller-coaster adventure of emotional highs and lows." ?Library Journal
Into the real thin air: The gripping story of the history-making around-the-world balloon flight as told by the pilots themselves. In this dramatic and inspiring account, adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the pilots of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, tell the remarkable story of 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 20-day marathon flight vividly to life, capturing the emotion of their many moments of high tension, as well as the uplifting humor and camaraderie that helped them persevere. This is the tale of a great adventure that shows how two very different characters forged a unique relationship during the greatest challenge of their lives.
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- 5.79(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.87(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 be doing 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 Almeri'a, 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.
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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