Virgin Global Challenger

An Interview with Per Lindstrand

In late January, Balloon Life spoke with Per Lindstrand about his recent attempt to fly a balloon around the world. A missed checklist item on preflight resulted in a night time maneuver that would doom the flight. The flight team consisted of Per, Richard Branson, and Alex Ritchie. Alex was a last minute replacement for Rory McCarthy who was ill. Per was candid about what went right and,what went wrong. before and during the flight. Following is part of that conversation.

Balloon Life: Tell us about going to Marrakech. The equipment was shipped there and ready in early December but, the team didn't arrive until just before the flight.
Per Lindstrand: Right. The problem in Marrakech was that the weather slot came up on Saturday morning (January 4). That morning [the go decision] looked like it might be yellow but not strong enough. So I went off to Marrakech. When I landed in Marrakech mid-day, Mike Kendrick (in England) had declared yellow without consulting me and called the troops out. Fortunately he called the troops out too late and they didn't have time to get the evening flight out to Marrakech that day. The next day they were going to go aboard a Virgin Express aircraft. That Virgin Express didn't actually take off for Marrakech until after midnight. The flight didn't land until after 3 a.m. in Marrakech and [the crew] had to start inflating at 7 a.m. They only got about three hours of sleep. Then the following night they didn't get any sleep at all. For what should have taken 72 hours we only had 24 hours. And, the people were already exhausted when they got there. These guys were like zombies.

I had an argument with Richard Branson about this. I said that if you are going to push people like this you are going to have problems. Last time (last year) we had people on site all the time. This year to save cost, they are very cost conscious, they had the crew sitting back in England. They were waiting to be called out in case there was a need for them. That was the root of the problem. This year I had a feeling that something was going to go [when] you start pushing things like that.

BL: How did the inflation go?
PL: We almost lost the balloon fighting the inflation because it wasn't calm. It demanded calm. There wasn't time given that there was quite a bit of wind. Getting it up at five knots is e-x-c-i-t-i-n-g! Grown men having white knuckles I'll tell you. Inertia of that thing when it is first moving is frightening. Nothing broken. We got it up there. I think that we are quite lucky to get it airborne giving the weather conditions that day. The minimum we had was two or three knots, it was never calm.

BL: How large is the balloon?
PL: 1.1 million cubic feet.

BL: What can you tell us about the fabric for the global balloon?
PL: I can't talk about it. I am not going to talk about fabric at all.

BL: For a balloon of that size ideally you want it to be calm?
PL: Yes. Certainly during the gas phase. Once you've hooked up you are okay.

BL: Tell us about the special system that you designed for filling the balloon with gas?
PL: We used the same system as they use on the high fly tether balloon (see Balloon Life December, 1996, Lindstrand Tether Ride Balloon) where we inflate the envelope by hooking up to the equator, at a hard point there. The balloon is held at the equator rather than normal position at the bottom of the envelope. Then we inflate the envelope, playing it out from the equator. When the balloon is up we wheel the capsule in underneath it. There is a cone, it is off loaded, and then you hook up to it.

BL: You have sixteen attaching points at the equator. Once the balloon is inflated you wheel the capsule underneath it and attach it. Then you can release the sixteen points?
PL: Right. We had one hookup that we had to send Chuck Foster up on a rope to disconnect it. Chuck did an outstanding job there. We almost lost poor Chuck because the harness wasn't really that good. He almost strangled on the rope and started coming off. We had to get him down in a hurry. But no problem, he was scared for [only] ten minutes.

BL: Once the gondola and envelope are hooked up and the sixteen attaching points disconnected how is the system held to the ground? PL: The gondola is on a launch vehicle. A sixteen wheeler, a purpose built dolly capable of handling twelve tons. The capsule is wheeled in and the dolly tied down to the concrete launch pad. The whole thing is held rigid. There are explosive bolts between the capsule and the dolly. The launch master can read all six load cells and actually determine what free lift I have.

What happens in a launch? I ask air traffic permission, then I get it. On my ground crew frequency I call the launch master, call him up and say we release on your command. And then he would do the count down, with the ground crew, and then the six bolts were fired.

The bolts were fired by a prize winner, a girl in England who won the prize to release the Global balloon. It was done by pushing a finger on a button. Of [the balloon] went. No problem.

BL: How much free lift did you go off with?
PL: Oh boy, did I go up. I did about 1,600 feet per minute in the beginning. The problem wasn't the free lift, the problem was the fact that we had a wind on top of about five knots and it is very hard to judge the amount of free lift that we had. False lift really. I think that we over estimated the false lift that we had on the top so we had too much helium into it. So I had to vent on takeoff. When I came off I was doing 1,600 feet per minute, that was pushing it a bit. So I started venting to get it down to 700-800 feet per minute climb.

BL: Did you have any problems with inversion layers on the way up?
PL: Nope. Nice and steadily it went right up to 30,000 feet, no inversions. Because of the wind, the five knot wind, it didn't get time to create an inversion, which was good from the climbing point of view but, bad from the inflation point of view.
We stayed at 30,000 feet until four o'clock when we started using the natural cooling to get down to disconnect the catches.

BL: How long had you been in the air before the crew realized that they had not undone the lock rings and advised you of that?
PL: I was well up into cruising altitude, probably about an hour. Something like that.

BL: How were things going in the capsule?
PL: Fine. Everything worked very well in the capsule. Pressurization, electrical system was faultless.

We had two problems. They forgot to pack toilet paper and they forgot to pack knives and forks. So we were eating peas with Swiss Army knife and using Wet Wipes for bottoms. We had plenty of Wet Wipes so no problem. We had lots of paper. The joke about, "Need toilet paper, send long fax," is not true.

We had a microwave and water heater on board with which we could make food, which we did.

Heating and ventilation system and avionics worked fine. The only thing that didn't work fine was the Inmarsat M phone. It had a self seeking antenna that got wonky on us once we got up to cruising altitude. We had plenty of others ways of communicating, so that was no problem.

I think that we found the capsule quite correctly sized. Richard and Alex both had a couple of hours of sleep. I didn't sleep at all. My intention was to not sleep during the night. My intention was to sleep during the daytime when, of course, there was less to do in the capsule.

The Algerian air traffic control was actually very good. We didn't expect that.

The amazing thing, you look at a map and there doesn't look like anything is out there in the desert. We landed and people came out of their fox holes everywhere. You land and you can't see anything. In a half an hour there is a goat herder. They all spoke English, every one of them. Even the shepherd spoke a little English.

There is no power, no water, no cleaning facility. But, there is a satellite disk for Sat TV run by a generator.

BL: How much training had Alex had in anticipation that he might have to fill in?

PL: Alex had moderate balloon training. His strength is that he knows the system of the capsule 100 percent. He was part of the design team for Virgin Atlantic, Pacific, and Global, my lead engineer. One of the most experienced people. He knows the pressurization system and did all the testing of the pressurization system for three weeks in a Rolls Royce test chamber. This is the heart of the system. As long as it works we will get there. That's why Alex and Joe Hanson were picked as backup pilots. My biggest fear was that something would happened to the system while I was sleeping. All Alex and Richard had to due was maintain a [level] cruise so I could sleep. I do the takeoff and landing and the flying course.

BL: How excited was Alex to get to go?
PL: "Alex, Rory has failed his medical, you are going." Alex, "Okay." He is very good indeed, one of the very best in the business. You couldn't ask for a better guy. He is bright, quick thinker. He is also an experienced sailor. He can navigate, read maps. But, you can be assured by next November if he is going to be the backup pilot he is going to have his gas license. I'm sure he is probably going to break Rory's leg (laugh).

BL: How is Rory doing now?
PL: He is depressed. He's fine. That's how the cookie crumbles, isn't it? I think that he would have felt even worse if he had delayed the whole project by virtue of not being able to fly. It was good that he didn't go because his condition was terrible. There was never a question of maybe, maybe. He was not in a position where he could go.

BL: When you came down from altitude to 5,000 feet above the desert floor to unpressurize the capsule and open the capsule door what happened?
PL: We opened the hatch and we opened the top, at that point we got caught in a rotor. There was quite a strong wind at 12,000 feet on top of the [Atlas Mountains]. The balloon started going down and so I did a little ballasting and suddenly she started picking up speed and dramatically going down with no change in any other factor. We were steady level, I was burning a bit monitoring my helium temperature. The temperature started picking up a bit so it looked like the balloon was going to climb. I put in a small [amount of heat with the burner to] climb and take tension off the balloon. Suddenly she started a death dive on me. I can only attribute that to a rotor, understand that the aircraft can be quite aggressive in that sense. I was quite close (to the mountains). In hind sight I should have waited longer until I came down instead of right there on the lee side.

So I started ballasting lead. Eventually dropped the entire on board lead ballast, the whole 600 kilos of it, then we dropped the water ballast, like 200 kilos. Then we threw out the rubbish, it was sitting at the entrance there. Then finally she stabilized and started climbing again. I thought, out of that rotor. Then she did another death dive on us. We were going around in this rotor. At this point I am thinking that I am never going to get out of this one unless I do something drastic. I told Alex that we are never going to get out of this until we get the caps off. So he left the ballasting and went out and got the caps off and climbed back in.

Then she came down dramatically again. I am sitting in this rotor going around and around. I jettisoned a tank (one metric ton of fuel) and that took us back to 28,000 feet again.

So, I am out 28,000 feet cruising again but I have lost most of my water, all of my inboard lead. I still had lead, landing ballast, which you do not touch until landing. There was no way we could take on the Pacific with a case of water and no inboard ballast. The choice is what do you do now. The flight was over. It is pretty meaningless to fly to China for the sake of flying because, you are sitting there with a 3 million balloon which you know if you land in China they are not going to give back to us. Or, land it the next morning in the Algerian desert within trucking distance of Marrakech. We managed to get it out of Algeria with no damage to anything at all. The capsule and tanks are back sitting in our office now. Everything intact. (See Algerian Adventure)

BL: You had a pretty successful landing.
PL: The landing was quite good. There was an inversion. I came in... the only thing hairy was at 2,000 feet it was doing like 25-30 knots. I thought there was supposed to be an inversion here. I was climbing down and it was not slowing down. I was thinking I don't want to land at 25 knots I'm going to lose tanks, I'm going to lose something. Then when I got into the inversion and it was four knots, beautiful. I leveled out to wait for it to slow down, I was taking it kind of easy. Suddenly, Alex, who was sitting on the top because it is difficult to see from inside, said there is a powerline ahead. I said I can't believe it, we are out here in the desert. He said it is a half mile ahead of us. How can there be a powerline within 500 miles of this place. So it prevented me from doing that perfect grease on that I wanted to do. I really wanted to slow her up and keep it ten feet above the ground and then gradually letting it down with the envelope attached. Instead I had to blow the envelope. She landed upright, no drag, blow the envelope, it floated up 100 yards turned down and fall to the ground.

So that was that. Then came the Air Force, Calvary, and militia. We really had a lovely time in Algeria, really friendly people.

BL: I understand that they were really falling all over themselves to offer you hospitality?
PL: Yes, we were socially kidnapped. The local militia, the local governor, the Army and the Air Force are fighting over who can house us, with the government winning because they collected our passports. And, that was that. We had lunch with the governor, back to the Air Force base and then back to the governor again for dinner.

The next morning at five o'clock the Minister of Transport announced that he was having us for dinner. He sent down the President's personal Falcon 900 jet to pick us up. It was sitting five o'clock that morning at the Air Force base with an APU running. So back to Algiers to see the Minister of Transport. The average Algerian is wonderful, cannot do enough for you. They were great. I would not mind going back at all. It was nice to have police escort or army escort all the time.

BL: What are your plans now?
PL: We are obviously going to do somemore testing. Do some more flying in Reno this Spring. Training, collecting data and then we will be back in Marrakech in December again.

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