by Peter Stekel
Jules Verne wrote about ballooning when it was more adventure than sport. In 1868, his Five Weeks in a Balloon transfixed Europe and the Americas. Then, in Le Tour du Monde en quatre-vingt tours (Around the World in 80 Days) Verne had Phileas Fogg attempt an 1873 circumnavigation of the globe. Though Fogg used every means of transportation available to him, it is the ballooning segment that people most remember.
Circumnavigating the globe non-stop by balloon has remained the last great aviation challenge and become the final adventure in a world increasingly dominated by virtual realities and spectator sports. Some of the previous pilots attempting the trip include Maxie Anderson in 1981, John Petrehn in 1988, and Larry Newman's many tries between 1991 and 1994. In 1996, Steve Fossett attempted a flight around the world. Others have planned as well and, so far, none have met with success.
Factors involved in the failure to make a balloon flight around the world can be technical in nature and also due to a capricious mother: Mother Nature.
During Maxie Anderson's flights with the helium-filled 408,000 cubic foot Jules Verne 3, he experienced problems with the envelope, inflation tubes, and weather. A leaking envelope lead to three aborted flights. In 1981 one flight covered a distance of 2676 miles The 1982 flight landed after 1162 miles.
John Petrehn, using a two envelope hot air and gas balloon combination, originally planned to fly from Perth Australia. Moving to Mendoza, Argentina, in March, 1988, and using two smaller helium balloons in place of one large envelope, he was stopped when high winds tore apart one balloon during inflation.
Larry Newman tried using a superpressure balloon below helium, with liquid helium on board for replenishment. With co-pilots Richard Branson and Vladimir Dzhanibekov, he waited months for good weather in Akron, Ohio before calling it quits February, 1992. Moving to Reno, he was again skunked by storms. Finally, on January, 12, 1993 he lifted off but couldn't penetrate a strong inversion layer and tore the ballast balloon on a mountain peak. He was forced to land 30 minutes later. During another attempt in November of that year, during inflation, one of the anchor bolts embedded in the runway tore loose and destroyed the envelope. Two months later, Newman had a good launch but went west, not east as intended, and landed in Fresno, California when a valve on the ballast balloon froze in the closed position.
In January of 1996, Steve Fossett met with nothing but bad luck in his Global Challenger. Two hours into his solo flight a National Geographic crew on board a chase helicopter informed Fossett they could see rips in the envelope. It turned out that the Global Challenger's Mylar covering was being ripped apart by the envelope's expansion. Then, his propane heaters failed to work properly. Finally, the Comstock autopilot, essential to the success of a solo flight, began acting erratically. Making matters worse, on his second night out, Fossett lost power to his communications array. By this time, Fossett was over the Bay of Fundi and opted to abort the mission.
Dick Rutan, in the Aeolus 1, was no more successful in 1996, citing sponsorship problems. Bob Martin, head of Odyssey, postponed that company's July, 1996 launch due to insufficient funding of the project. The experience of these two projects emphasizes that the capriciousness of balloon flight is not solely relegated to winds and weather but to finances as well.
Richard Branson, Per Lindstrand, and Rory McCarthy delayed their 1996 flight, in the Virgin Global Challenger, from Morocco due to bad weather. Henk Brink's attempt to fly a Cameron-built Roziere from Holland also suffered from the same lack of favorable winds as the Virgin group. However, complicating matters was when the third member of the flight crew left the team.
Brink's difficulties underscore another facet inhibiting a successful flight: the problems inherent with human interactions. After losing his team member, Brink went on Dutch television, laying the blame for his flight cancellation at the feet of Cameron Balloons, citing the Mylar-peeling of Steve Fossett's Cameron. The company responded by saying the loss of adhesion in the second skin, which is for insulation, "Has no effect on the airworthiness of the balloon."
January 7th of this year, Branson and Lindstrand tried again, replacing McCarthy, who was suffering from a chest infection, with Alex Ritchie. Launching from Marrakech, Morocco, they ran into trouble when they discovered that all Tema couplings attached to the fuel tanks had been left in the locked position. Consequently, empty tanks could only be released by having someone crawl on top of the pilot's capsule to do the work by hand. Over the Algerian desert, the crew decided to abort.
Then, on January 12, 1997, Bertrand Piccard and Wim Verstraeten slowly lifted off from Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland in the Breitling Orbitor, a Cameron built Roziere. In the crowd of well-wishers stood Richard Branson. Within several hours, a fifty cent metal hose clamp had failed, bathing the inside of the capsule with kerosene fumes. The pilots dropped down to 9000 feet to depressurize the capsule and vent the fumes but they decided to terminate the flight instead with a landing in the Mediterranean Sea.
While the Breitling team was lifting off, Steve Fossett was preparing for another solo try at circumnavigation. In St. Louis, Missouri, on January 13th, Fossett made a picture-perfect lift-off and crossed the Atlantic without a hitch. Nearly five days later, and with a capsule internal temperature of zero degrees, Fahrenheit, Fossett crossed over Saudi Arabia. Here, he met a big problem. Fuel consumption was far above the rate anticipated and projections predicted he would run out of fuel long before completing the flight. After six days of flying, Fossett touched down in Pirthiganj, India, nearly half-way around the world from his departure site.
None of the pilots attempting round-the-world balloon flight could be called anything but experienced. A sampling: Maxie Anderson participated with Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman in the first successful Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1978. In 1981, Newman, along with Abruzzo, Rocki Aoki, and Ron Clark were the first to cross the Pacific Ocean. Don Cameron, having made his own attempt at being first across the Atlantic, perfected the Roziere combination gas and hot air balloon. Steve Fossett flew solo across the Pacific in 1995 in a Cameron Roziere. Dick Rutan made the first non-stop, non-refueled, airplane flight around the world. None of these pilots are amateurs!
And now, as the 1997-98 winter launch window opens, teams are preparing once again for the challenge of circumnavigating the earth by balloon. There are few remaining aviation milestones that can be considered worthy of addition to those already in the National Air and Space Museum collection. Surely the inclusion of the first manned, non-stop, round-the-world flight in a balloon would be one. Many have tried, and so far, all have failed. However, it won't be long before this last aviation milestone is achieved. And when that happens, the pilot who succeeds will be placed in the Parthenon of aviators that includes Charles Lindberg, Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong, and others who captured significant milestones in aviation.