If Steve Fossett's first attempt at an around-the-world balloon flight (January 96) was a self-proclaimed "embarrassment"; his second attempt has left him convinced he is now the front-runner in the race for ballooning's holy grail. No wonder! Fossett's latest flight covered a distance and duration of 9,672 statute miles over six days, two hours, and fifty-four minutes, while his two principal competitors have spent only a few short, even if thrilling, hours in the air. Meanwhile teams in New Mexico and California have not yet made it to the launching pad. Just days after returning to the US from his landing in India, Fossett stood before a packed news conference at the National Geographic in Washington, D.C. and confirmed the speculation - yes, he will try again. A few days later he talked at length with Balloon Life about the lessons learned from his two previous attempts, the planning required for a third attempt, and his chances for ultimate success... "The number one danger in distance flying is equipment failure followed closely by the number two danger; being forced down in a country where you have no overflight permission," says Steve Fossett.
With that reality in mind, planning for a second RTW attempt began in February 1996, a mere 30 days after Fossett's first attempt had been shortened dramatically by a laundry list of equipment failures, not the least of which was an envelope skin that was peeling itself apart. But as the Solo Spirit stood tall and silent in the glare of Bush Stadium in St. Louis just a few short weeks ago, it was not the equipment but the still missing over-flight permissions that had Steve Fossett most concerned. "We started working on the overflight permissions about seven months prior to the flight," says Fossett, "and we had made really good progress getting permission from 48 countries all of which there was a good possibility that I might overfly."
Interestingly Fossett says the problems with gaining permission are not so political as one might believe. "It's not so much US foreign relations as it is a perception in some of the countries of whether this creates interference with their civilian aviation, or they just don't like the idea of us flying over their military bases."
Even with the many European nations that do not require overflight permission, as late as a few minutes before launch there were still significant names missing from the list, including of course Libya, and China and this troubled Fossett. "I wasn't terribly optimistic about making it all the way around the world because of the permission problem, but I did fully intend to make a flight, at least across the Atlantic and then just see how things went."
Conversely Fossett was feeling good about his equipment. Following the 1996 attempt Fossett and his primary team of Bruce Comstock and Nick Saum had gone to work on that laundry list of failures and had "come up with some pretty good stuff.
"We finally had solved the electrical power problem once and for all by using a battery system. We had a likely solution to the cabin heater problem, and the design problems with the envelope we felt had been corrected. In fact we did two test inflations, one at Cameron and one in St. Louis and were very impressed with the quality of construction."
The Launch and Shakedown
"The launch is a very nervous time because so many things can go wrong. There could be problem with the team putting the balloon together, the weather can be a problem (in fact, a 5-knot wind swirling through the stadium did complicate the inflation process), and there is a lot of risk that I'll make a mistake in the first phase of the flight.. There's a lot to do and so the launch is very susceptible to pilot error," explains Fossett. Fortunately no errors were made by pilot or crew and the balloon slipped effortlessly away into the night sky. For the next several hours Fossett would be busy giving his aircraft a good going over to assure everything was in order before heading out over the Atlantic.
"One of the reasons we chose St. Louis as a launch site was because it is close enough to the Atlantic to allow for a relatively accurate trajectory forecast, but it's also far enough to give me one window of opportunity to land if I were to be having too much trouble with the balloon.
"I treat the water crossings very seriously. Although no one has been lost in a water landing, I think it's very risky."
This would be Steve Fossett's third ocean crossing in a balloon. He had earlier crossed the Atlantic as co-pilot with Tim Cole, and later made his solo crossing of the Pacific. Balloons have now crossed the two oceans a total of 12 times since the first successful crossing by the Double Eagle II team in 1978. Despite those successes Fossett cautions against considering an Atlantic crossing as routine.
"An ocean crossing by balloon is still a rare event," says Fossett, "but we are getting better at it. Since the first crossing we have much improved weather modeling with which to plan a trajectory and we have the development of the Roziere balloon system which allows us to fly at a constant flight level so unlike the old gas balloons we don't have to carry such huge amounts of ballast just to stay out of the water at night!" Indeed the Atlantic would be the undoing of this flight of Solo Spirit, not the much heralded delay and detour while courting Libyan authorities for overflight permission.
"We wanted to fly a northerly trajectory across the Atlantic and into Europe," explains Fossett, "but the early winds were about 10 miles per hour slower than expected and had a more southerly push than thought. We were fighting to get to that northern trajectory, because that was the plan. So I was flying low during the day, at about 18,000 feet to get the right wind direction. This involved valving off helium and then it became necessary to fly high (about 24,000) feet the following night. Because I had valved the helium and established a new flight level of 18,000 feet, I now had to fly the balloon as a hot air balloon to climb up to 24,000 feet and in doing so I used more than two days worth of fuel to fly that one night at high altitude."
>From that point on Fossett was behind on his fuel management plan and knew his chances for an around the world flight were greatly diminished. Worse yet, he had failed to climb into the northerly trajectory and now was connecting with the subtropical jet stream. This meant a flight path across the top of Africa where new problems waited the Solo Spirit.
Africa and Beyond
"I had made up in my own mind that it was too dangerous to go into Libya without permission so I had decided that if we couldn't get it (permission), I was going to land short."
As the coast of Africa passed below his balloon the Libyan question now became of paramount concern to Fossett and his team. While the Solo Spirit team, CNN and even Richard Branson were appealing to the Libyan government for overflight permission, and Fossett was considering a possible landing, Lou Billones and his meteorology team sent exciting word to Fossett.
"As I was going into Algeria, my met team miraculously figured out that if I flew low, I could actually get winds that would take me around and clear of the southern tip of Libya. It would take an extra day, but it could be done."
Fossett in fact descended and started around Libya on this low and slow trajectory when word came through the Libyan News Agency that the Libyan National Security Council had granted overflight permission. Fossett now climbed back to a flight level of 24,000 feet, at this point penetrating the jet stream and picking up remarkable speed.
Unfortunately by that time the brass ring had been lost. Bruce Comstock notified Fossett that his fuel consumption was too high, that he would not have the fuel to cross the Pacific. The team therefore recommended that Fossett fly on and establish a new ultimate distance and possibly duration world record. Fossett agreed and the flight's objectives were restated to 1) an ultimate distance record for balloons, 2) a similar duration record and 3) the first balloon crossing of the continent of Africa.
China and the Landing
"We did not have permission to overfly China, and while I was willing to approach China and try to get a last minute forbearance to cross through to complete my around the world goal, I was unwilling to approach China if I new I was going to have to land in China."
Working backwards from the Chinese border, Fossett considered a landing in Bangladesh, but winds curling northward would have pushed him beyond the flatlands into the majestic yet unforgiving Himalayas. Too bad, as he was screaming across Asia in the jet stream at speed of up to 125 knots. At two o'clock in the morning Fossett descended to 3,000 feet to slow down, effectively parking the balloon while waiting for daylight or so he thought.
As Fossett waited out the sunrise a band of thunderstorms caught him. Normally he would have flown over them as they were not very high, but because he no longer wanted to cover great distances he went lower and lower. "Eventually I got the balloon down very close to the ground, near 300 feet, even though it was hilly terrain but I couldn't see it."
At daylight Fossett could have landed in virtually calm conditions, the distant record now safely in hand the second object was duration. To accomplish that record he needed to remain airborne until about 12:30 in the afternoon.
"By the time I achieved the duration record there were no slow winds anywhere. It was 13 knots at the surface and I was actually moving backwards to the northwest where the farm fields were getting smaller and smaller. There were more and more trees and villages, many with powerlines, so my earlier prospects for an easy landing were now dimmed.
"One thing I learned, "Fossett said, "is that we haven't studied landing these big Roziere balloons enough. We're using the same valve and burners we use on a R-77 (77,000 cubic foot Roziere) but now the balloon is three times larger. To valve out helium I was having to hang on the valve line sometimes 30 seconds or more whereas you usually would valve no more than 5 seconds."
Thus when he could get the balloon into a descent it was one of 500 feet per minute down or better. Then to stop the descent he had to burn steadily, the end result being that porpoising effect that many rookie balloon pilots experience on their first landing attempts. Finally with the aid of a few trees Solo Spirit came to a stop near the village of Nonkhar, India.
"As soon as I touched down there were a hundred villagers surrounding me. No one spoke English, so at first I was afraid of getting out of the capsule for fear they might all start climbing in."
As is so often the case a bit of crude sign language between the parties assured Fossett he could leave the confines of his capsule; the natives only wanted to help. Now Fossett's top priority was to get the balloon out of the trees before any photographers arrived! He did not.
Fossett spent that night in the nearby town of Sultanpor and was reunited with his chase team there. The next morning when they went back to the landing site there were more than 500 villagers on hand so the crew got busy organizing work parties while Fossett set about the spectacular work of burning off the remaining 35 percent of his fuel.
The gas ballonet of the balloon was saved but the hot air cone was damaged and hanging in the trees. Much as the Eskimos of Canada's Northwest Territory benefited from an earlier ocean crossing by balloon, the residents of the village of Nonkhar will be sporting silver mylar tents and rain gear well into the new millennium.
The capsule, which Fossett so jealously guarded during his first few moments back on solid ground was shipped to Washington D.C. where it will spend a few months on display at the National Geographic and the National Air and Space Museum before being readied for the next attempt.
"We've done all of our calculations on fuel consumption based on equilibrium flight levels and this is the way we've made gas balloon flights in the past. You fly at the balloon's ceiling using helium during the day and you keep it there at night using the hot air mechanism. We now realize there is an awful lot of steering required to get this balloon around the world."
With that realization has come another; Fossett needs a larger balloon if he is to complete his dream of being first around the world in a balloon. The steering decisions, like those he had to face over the Atlantic require much more fuel than an equilibrium type flight plan. As a result Fossett says he wants to have on board a buffer of at least 50% more fuel than the minimum estimated for an around the world flight. The size of the envelope would have to be enlarged correspondingly but Fossett says they are still doing calculations, no final decision on envelope size has been made.
Equally important for the Solo Spirit team were the many facets of their planning that this flight proved correct. For example, Fossett learned he can penetrate the jet stream and fly there comfortably in an unpressurized capsule. "That's got to be a surprise to my competitors," he says. In fact, Fossett reported that he was able to fly comfortably at 24,000 feet without the use of any oxygen so long as he limited his movements and activity.
As noted above, Fossett says his met team is hard at work on finding ways of "steering" him around the world. An added buffer of fuel could make that possible.
Those pesky cabin heaters are a critical problem as Fossett admits the constant cold wears on him after a couple of days. Yet even their performance keeps improving. "We had them working to 13,000 crossing the Pacific, to 16,000 last January ('96) and up to 19,000 this time," he says.
Fossett is also convinced that the publicity surrounding his flight and the "race" to be first around the world will only make getting overflight permissions easier next time, removing yet another obstacle.
In fact, Steve Fossett now says point blank that he is the front runner in the race to fly a balloon around the world. "We're really delighted with this flight. We've seen that the approach that we're using does work. In my opinion that puts us ahead of the other teams. They haven't found all of their problems yet. Their flights have been so short - yes they can correct their launch problems - but they don't know what difficulties await them in sustained flight. We just need to make some additional improvements and I've got a really good chance of going around the world!"