"I was feeling very, very optimistic. We had a very good weather forecast. The launch process itself has a lot of risks of damaging the balloon so it’s actually a big relief when you get the balloon inflated in good shape."
Fueled by adrenaline and driven by his self-professed optimism, Steve Fossett stood ready to take to the heavens in an attempt to be the first to circle the world in a balloon. In a short two hours the optimism would turn first to worry, then doubt and finally to embarrassment and bitter disappointment. Such would be the emotional roller coaster ride Fossett would experience over the next three days...
Steeped in ballooning history, South Dakota’s Stratobowl was the scene of the launch of Fossett’s Global Challenger on Monday, January 15th when things began to go wrong "right away."
"Within an hour of launch," Fossett told Balloon Life a few days after the flight, "I started hearing what sounded like static electricity sounds. I thought that perhaps the envelope’s mylar was actually attracting some sort of electrical charges and discharges." Unfortunately, about two hours into the flight a National Geographic film crew on board a helicopter informed Fossett they could see tears in the envelope.
The problem, according to Fossett, was that the envelope’s mylar covering was being ripped apart by the envelope’s expansion. Design criteria allowed for as much as an 11 % horizontal stretch in the mylar, but virtually no vertical expansion was expected. In fact, Fossett says it now appears the balloon’s load tapes my have stretched vertically by as much as 3 1/2 % once under load. In the end, the silvery mylar covering hung in shreds from almost every panel of the Global Challenger.
"Initially I wasn’t too concerned about this," says Fossett, "but later it became a real problem." What Fossett had forgotten momentarily is that there were 6-inch holes at the top of each gore of the hot air cone of the balloon. These holes allowed the hot air to flow up and around the helium bladder thus warming the helium and preserving its lift. That is the basis of a Rozier balloon. "With the mylar shredded what I had was 64 little 6-inch vents and the hot air capability of the balloon was seriously jeopardized as it turned out."
Next a problem that nagged Fossett on his Pacific crossing appeared again; the propane heaters failed to work as hoped. For some reason the heaters would run only in cycles of about two hours. A problem? Yes. But almost a blessing in light of their complete failure on the Pacific Flight. "I never got cold," says Fossett, " as it never got lower than minus ten degrees Fahrenheit in the capsule. After that I got busy trying to relight the heaters." By the end of the flight, Fossett had acquired a "knack" for relighting the pesky heaters.
A far more serious problem was the failure of the Comstock autopilot, essential to the success of a solo flight as this would provide Fossett the only means of getting any meaningful sleep during the anticipated 15-day journey. "The new version of the autopilot would not engage so I switched to the old version, the one I had carried across the Pacific," Fossett explained. "It [the old version] would engage but had trouble staying engaged because of the extra heating demands. Normally in a Rozier you’re burning about 25% of the time, but with all the holes in the hot air cone, I was having to burn more in the 50 to 75% range.
"We now think the problem with getting the autopilot to engage was the unevenness of the power supply. We hadn’t paid much attention to power surges in the system and Bruce Comstock now thinks that was throwing off the autopilot."
Flying over the state of Virginia and entering just his second day of the flight, Fossett was already beginning to reassess his chances for success. "I asked for a careful assessment as to the weather trajectory because knowing I was already having my share of problems, I wanted to make sure I also wasn’t having weather problems."
Fossett consulted team meteorologist Lou Billones. The consensus was the trajectory was still good for a crossing of the Atlantic. By the middle of this second day, Fossett crossed the US coastline and went ‘feet wet’. It was a critical moment of decision.
"One of the reasons for starting from the middle of the US mainland," Fossett explained, "was to allow me the time to see how the equipment would shake down without the added pressure of being over the ocean." Even though he committed to cross land’s end, Fossett was far from satisfied with his flight’s progress.
"It was going quite slow. I was reading speeds of only 30 knots while our original weather projection was for quite a rapid flight, so I was beginning to wonder when wind speeds were going to pick up." What was really happening was just what Fossett didn’t want, a rapidly changing weather situation. Originally expecting to be catapulted off the bottom of a major low pressure system on the US eastern seaboard (it was the one that caused the now historical Blizzard of ’96), a new low developed behind the original one forcing Fossett onto a much more northerly tract.
Still the trajectory said Fossett was go for an Atlantic crossing. The new plan would see him swing north across Newfoundland along the front of the newest low pressure system, then turn southeast and cross the Atlantic ending up near Morocco (not far from the staging area for the Virgin Challenger team). "Despite the forecasted trajectory I was worried to have such dramatic and unexpected changes in the weather so early in the flight. I was concerned that I might not get that southeast turn and would continue out into the north Atlantic." Not an exciting thought any time of year and certainly not in the dead of winter.
Weather was not the only factor worrying Fossett, there were more equipment worries. The chief power source for the Global Challenger, a propane powered generator had failed from the beginning. This system provided power to Fossett’s avionics and communications. A back-up solar power generator was also performing at less than nominal levels. "Because of the holes in the hot air cone and the leaking hot air, the balloon was spinning at the rate of about one revolution every fifteen minutes," says Fossett. "The tracker to keep the solar array aimed at the sun could not adjust for this rate of spin, so I was getting very little power from the solar array. I was able to make it through the first night because of the strength of the batteries."
At about 3 a.m. (local time) during the second night of the flight Fossett lost power to his communications array. The GPS was working but he was no longer able to receive critical weather and trajectory advise from Billones. This meant Fossett could venture out into the Atlantic completely unaware of critical changes in the weather.
Meanwhile the balloon was also become increasingly difficult to handle. When the autopilot would loose control and the balloon would start a descent, Fossett found it was becoming harder and harder to stop the descents because of the great loss of hot air. "I could run both burners full blast and still have difficulty stopping these descents," said Fossett. I had a couple of 6,000 foot descents like that [during the second day and night] and as I was coming in over the Bay of Fundi [during the third and final day of the flight] I had a 15,000 foot descent almost right down to the water before I could stop it."
With the loss of communications power at 3 a.m. of the second night (Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning) the end was in sight. "I had decided by about 5 a.m. that this was an untenable situation and that I should land and not continue on across the Atlantic." Now Fossett turned his attention to getting back to land, or failing that, planning a landing in the water as near to land or an established shipping zone as possible.
"I think it was a feeling of disgust that came over me (once the decision to abort was made)," Fossett told Balloon Life. "We felt like we had done our homework, we did feel like we had done our testing and were well prepared, then to have so many things going wrong was very disappointing.
"Once I decided to abort the flight I set off the EPIRB (emergency locator beacon) that (even with the loss of communications) made it immediately known by all that I was ending the flight and it allowed the Coast Guard to track my location. I wanted the Coast Guard to be aware of where I was in case I did go into the water."
Fossett flew on for several hours until crossing into the Bay of Fundi at which point he felt pangs of relief as the Bay is completely surrounded by land. A few hours later, using his GPS and aeronautical charts, Fossett was certain he was over land so he began descending through clouds from 5,000 feet to a site north of the city of St. John, New Brunswick.
"It was just like landing an airplane [in a traffic pattern]," he says, laughing about it now. "I was going north (downwind) as I descended until at 3,000 feet I had a 90- degree shift in the winds turning onto a left base, then at 300 feet I hit another 90- degree shift turning left for my final [approach]."
Fossett touched down in a long, narrow hay field. The balloon having been in sight for some time and much of the world aware of his flight, he was greeted by local media and residents almost immediately after climbing out of the capsule. It was in those first few post-flight moments when Fossett would remark that he was "embarrassed" by his failure-a remark for which he has taken a great deal of criticism from friends and supporters. It was not his first failure. But it was the first that attracted the glare of international media attention.
Steve Fossett and The Global Challenger did not achieve their stated goal. Yet in his first attempt he has clearly outdistanced the earliest challenger in this ring-Earthwinds-and thrown down the gauntlet for others who would seek to grab ballooning’s ultimate prize..