Balloon Life,May 2000


When Balloon Life spoke with Kevin
Uliassi at the Forbes Chateaux last June
he was not optimistic about having the
resources to make another around-the-
world attempt. His first effort, New Year’s
Eve 1997, ended with a ruptured envelope
and emergency night time landing.
With strong support from his spon-
sors, team members and anonymous in-
vestors, Uliassi was able to make a sec-
ond attempt at flying around-the-world
solo by balloon. The flight was cut short,
just past the half-way point, when his
oxygen delivery system became unreli-
Balloon Life recently sp oke with
Kevin Uliassi about his latest attempt.
This is a story, not about one man’s dream
and adventure, but about a team of loyal
and dedicated individuals. Individuals
who came together and helped to shep-
herd this flight into reality. People who
invested themselves to assist a friend to
try and accomplish one of the most diffi-
cult feats in aviation. Following is part of
our conversation.

ence. What were your feelings at launch?
When you reached float altitude what was
goingthrough your mind?
Kevin Uliassi:For me, the proudest mo-
mentof the wholeflight, the partof the
the point at which Icut away in the quarry.
Because I could look aroundandsee my
entire team—people that have stayed with
me forthree years. They had probably just
done the bestjobof anyone launchinga
single hitch. I guess it was pride, pride in
Once the line is cut for, the next 10 to
20 days you are going to be committed. It
focuses your attention. It is a very strange
position to be in.
This time I knew that I had a [good]

balloon over my head. I had designed it,
with help from Ed Yost, myself. It was not
going to have the problems that the other
one had. As I approached the ceiling I
watched the appendixes very closely. As
soon as I realized that everything was
going to work correctly I relaxed.

KU:The balloon did not behave the first
stubborn, doing things contrarytowhat I
tho ughtitsh ould.Th efirstnightwe
night. The secondday itbehavedunpre-
dictably and I have no idea why.
After that, itflew like a dream. You
could predict exactly what altitude it was
wonderful. It flew exactly the way it was
States waspretty fast, but then we had to
do a lot of slow flyingover the Atlantic.

Lou Billones said it would be a seven day
crossing [of the Atlantic] andwe did it in
six and ahalf. The flight broke the “record”
for the slowest Atlantic crossing, but it
was the only opportunity that we had to
get a flight in this year.

BL:Youhave hada really amazingcol-
lectionof peoplewhodedicatedalotof
time andenergy tohelp you.
oldest friends, Todd Little, handled much
of the support logistics. He handled virtu-
ally everything that didn’t have to do with
itself. Marlene Gaidzik andher husband
Scooter dideverythingfrom filling sand
through the balloonon several occasions
to changerigging insidethegas cell. Chuck
thingtheycouldtomake thisa success.
Both of them were key to the inflation. We
who took it upon himself to handle all the
fuelin g[o ftheprop ane/ethanetanks]

Flight of the J. Renee

An interview with Kevin Uliassi

IMAGE uliassi000501.gif
IMAGE uliassi000502.gif

Kevin Uliassi, blue jacket, installs the valve in the balloon while his wife and name sake
of the balloon, J. Renee, white jacket, watches.


Balloon Life,May 2000

rigged the capsule and kept track of oxy-
gen and fuel use during the flight. That
was really amassive job.BruceCom-
stock came infor the launch. Both he and
Nick Saum prepared the balloon in 1998
and worked at the communications cen-
Chuck Forsey, who flies the LA-Z-
Boyballoon, has supported thisflightasa
sponsor. He and the people from Praxair
cameforwardlast yearandsaidyou,
“shoulddo this flight again.”
There were times whenI saidto heck
with this, we can’t seem to generate any
titlesponsorship,andRenee wouldnot let
me give up.
Curt Linduer, our FAA representa-
tive, went above and beyond the call of
duty, visiting our hangar countless times
and helping us get the balloon approved
as airworthy.
Jerry Stephan,a retired Northwest
Airlines pilot and long-timeballoonist,
and Dick Blosser, who was Dick Rutan’s
ATC communication while I was sleep-
ing. They didsuch a goodjob thatI hardly
had to talk to anyone across Africa. Scott
Lorenz and Glenn Marrichi handled pub-
man and helped in many other areas.
My uncle, Pio Uliassi, used to work
for the State Department and handled all
my overflight clearances. Before I took
off I had 79 in place. During the flight
there were several clearances that were
lagging. One ofthem was China.After we
launched they finally gave us clearance
We hadto get clearance to fly throughthe
no-fly zone over Iraqor we wouldhave to
fly around it. When we thought we were
going to fly over Afghanistan. Piofound
a way to get in contact with the rebels to
insure theywould not try to shoot me
Bill O’Donnell isresponsiblefor
bringing the project to Rockford, and we
certainlyreceived support from everyone
inthe area. ButchRaffertyand histeam at
thequarry workedincrediblyhardto keep
the launch site ready for three winters.
Our web sitewas createdbya team of
students fromIllinois Institute of Tech-
nologyunder the directionof John Nestor
and John Kallend, who both updated the
Guy Gauthier provided his expertise

Killingsworth wasconstantly available
changes, and then made changes again.
Mickilived in Rockford for I don’tknow
howlong,makingallthechangesI wanted
to the envelope. We have a picture of her
surrounded by two thousand pounds of
It was an amazing team all the way
around. There was not a single person in
the group who you wouldn’t want where
they were. I’m sure I’ve missed 50 other
people I should have mentioned.
ThenewfriendshipsthatI have made,
the old friendships that I have strength-
ened throughthisproject, the closenessof
the team, the way we have come together
really is the single most important thing
about this flight. That sounds absurd to
mostpeople, butitreallyistrue. You have
no idea how important that is compared
purely to achieving [thisflight].

BL:What’s it like in the capsule?
KU:I was very busy, I should say very
focused throughout the whole flight.Even
when I was sleeping, changes in the sound
of the burners would wake me up. I would
be standing outside thecapsule with a
striker in hand before I was fully awake if
the sound of the burners changed at all.
When they changed pitch it usually meant
they had gone from liquid to vapor and it
was time to change tanks,which was done
There was very little time to read or
sit around and do nothing. When I wasn’t
working I was trying to get some sleep.
There are many small tasks from writing
things down in the log, resetting an alti-
tude alarm or responding to some sort of
alarm. You manually fly the balloon for
several hours a day untilthe autopilotcan
take over. Then you have time to tidy up
the cabin.
It iskind of hardto describe. Youare
incrediblybusy, monitoring your oxygen
levels, workingonsomething. Therewere
several thingsthat broke during the flight
and I had to repair them. Some problems
were simple,such as when part of the
hatch broke. Some were as scary as both
solenoid valves on the burner quittingat
the same time. Fortunately I had spares
and soI wasable togo outsideandchange
Tracking down problems was a big
part of the third through sixthday. One of

the biggest tasks every day is getting the
tanks ready for the following night, mak-
ingsure that allthe hoses are connected to
the correct tank. I would put a harness on
togetout on topof the capsule andsortof
wanderover tothetankon whichI needed
to work. Because it is so cold, hooking
Tema fittings up can take five or ten
minutes each. Everything is really stiff.
You have to clean up and make sure
ing is really simple. What I dreaded was
once or twice adayputtingthatharnesson
and having to get out there. I couldn’t
wear a coat with the harness. That was a
stupidmistake, because itwas coldsitting
out there without a coat with these really
thin gloves on, because you want to feel
what you are doing, hammering on fit-
tingswithwrenches, trying tomake regu-
lators work right.

BL:Did you anticipate that much activ-
KU:Yes, I didn’t think that there would
be much free time at all. I thoughI would
get seven or eight hours of sleep out of
every 24 hours and the rest of the time I
wouldbe working,even when the balloon
isn’t making demands on you.
There was only one night that I slept
through the whole night. I woke up and
the sun was streaming through the hatch.
For eight hours I had no alarms. The auto
pilotsworked perfectly throughout.
Bruce Comstock builttheautopilots.
They are amazing computerized devises.
They can fly any balloon better than any
something you don’t understand, like it
stops burning for a while, and then sud-
denlyburnsforareallylong time.It
catches your attention, but it is always
right. (Laugh)There were times whenthe
autopilotflew the balloonplus or minusa
couple of feet for hours on end. A solo
flight could not takeplacewithout the
Comstock Autopilot

BL:Any surprises?
KU:The biggest surprise was over the
Nile [River]and the Red Sea. I knew that
therewere thunderstorms north ofme,
150-200 miles. I flew through something
over the Nile River. Snow flakeswere the
big surprise,along with hail and sleet,
freezing rain, big ups and downs. Every-
thingyou hear about thunderstorms. Lou

Balloon Life,May 2000


Billones suggest I descend. Finally, when
I descended after 45 minutes it spit me out
the bottom. I assume I was in the anvilof
the cloud. I flew on and thought it must
have been turbulence that caused it, but
we found out later that it was a thunder-
storm. I thought that was the end of the
flight. I put my parachute on, called the
crew and told themI didn’t know how
much longertheballoon was going to
survive because it was getting so badly
distorted. I didn’t know whether it was
going to get worse or better.
Ikeeptalkingaboutsome ofthe beau-
tifulsightsI saw. The starsoverthe Atlan-
tic—what a view that was at night. More
stars than I had seen anywhere. Nota few
sands over Libya, the desert there is just
amazing. As far as the eye can see every-
thing is the same. For five or six hours,
sand ineverydirection. Beautifulshapes.
Everything from a technical stand-
point was anticipated right up until my
A14oxygenregulator hadproblems.That
was the only thing that really caught me
off guard. I never expected that.
I was not really displeased with the
flight. At some point during the flight I
was having suchagood time,that al-
though Iwouldlike to fly around the
world and likely could, that goal became
less and less important as the flight went

BL:You talked about flying through the
thunderstorm inEgypt,once yougotdown
totheCaribbean youhadsomeinteresting

weather that you had to negotiate. How
difficultwasit togetthroughall this
adverse weather?
KU:Lou,who was doing most of my
maneuvering, wastellingme at whatalti-
tude to fly. He was checking every pos-
siblesource of weather information tosee
where the cumulus clouds were and po-
abitof convectiveactivity.I was prepared
with my parachute onand myraft at-
tachedfor 28 or 29 hours straightwithout
eating or sleeping. That was exhausting.
Lou knew they were there and he kept
tellingme thepercentage chance of going
rightintoone ofthese storms. Iwastelling
Lou what Iwasseeingand taking his
advice on placing the balloon at the right
altitude. We were just lucky. I knew be-
fore I took off that I would be encounter-
ing some of these storms.

BL:To a laymen, your jetstreamtrack
looked fabulous. Were you and Lou ec-
static about with the jetstream track?
KU:Neither one of us had a chance to
dwell on it during the flight.Lou was
working incredible hours. We werein-
tensely focused. The track is what Lou
was lookingfor when he foundit. It wasa
the bad stuff. Itgot us far enough southof
26 north latitude to get us across China
within the permitted area [and] quickly
acrossthe Pacific. Once I got over India I
had to stay above 32,000 feet for the rest
of the flight.

medical advisor for altitude effects, he
had all the numbers, such as how much
oxygen I was using. He said, “You can
easily go to 34[000 feet] the next day or
so. The plan was to stay above 32. When
Ilandedwewere four anda half daysfrom
the California coast. In another five or six
daysI wouldhave landed inthe US. Itwas
a great track, Lou did a great job. We
knew that the Atlantic was the hardest
part of the flight.

BL:What kind of food did you take with
KU:A lot of my stuff is from Dr. Phil
Maffetone, a sports physiologist. He sells
a nutrition bar called Phil’sBar andPhil’s
Shakes. I also had one of those every day.
My parents made the rest of the food for
me. I had things like canned sardines and
spam. My parents cooked the majorityof
my food and put it in little eight ounce
packets, froze it, brought it to the launch
siteon dry ice, put itintocoloredbagsand
hungit up outsidethe capsule. Assoon as
I got up to altitude it was cold enough to
keep it frozen. I could pull out a package
of roastbeef, chicken soup, chile, or veg-
heater in a Styrofoam box that my father
built. I had fresh fruits and vegetables. I
had fresh oranges and apples the whole
flight. I had red and green peppers that
stayed fresh. The day before I landed I
was stilleating fresh foods.

BL:Were you eating a lot?
KU:No, I was probably eating enough
calories, because every day I would eat a
bag of cashews and almonds and a few
other things.Thatwas nine-hundred calo-
ries. I would usually eat one main meal
and then some other snacks. Oatmeal in
the morningor canof sardines.Iwas
eating half my normal intake.
Your appetitejustgoesaway. Every-
thingtastes funny, too. Once you get past
about 24,000 feet food that touches the
palate in your mouth has totally different
tastes then what you are used too. I don’t
know why. Its very strange. Your body
really doesn’t digest food as well at alti-
tude as it does on the ground.
Myown opinion, thisisn’t backed up
by any specific research, is that for long
periods at high altitude your body func-
tionsdifferently. We know that fluid lev-
elschange inthe whole body. Inthe spine,

IMAGE uliassi000503.gif


Balloon Life,May 2000

brain, lungs, everywhere. You are func-
tioninga different way. Youare digesting
food differently, yourrespiration func-
tionsdifferently, your eye sight, hearing,
adapts. Your blood buildsmore red blood
cells every day. You are releasing differ-
stream. You become, in ef-
fect, a different person. So,
you have to respond to what
your body wants. Due to the
pressure I had a slighthead-
ache attimes after a descent.
Peter says that is typical at
whichhelped.The heartburn
was kind of bothersome.

BL:How much sleep were
you able to get?
KU:Thefirst partofthe
flight itseemslikeIwas
flightwore onI needed more
themore oxygen youuse. As
soonas Istarted gettingtired
I would turn up my oxygen
levels to keep saturation in
my blood. I was constantly
attached to a pulse oximeter
with an alarm.
stressinour livesfor months
before the flight. Then I had
the stress of the flight. Both
physicaland mentalstressis
what really does more dam-
age than the lack of sleep. In
fact,youneedmore andmore
sleep the more stressed you
glands become less and less
have no adrenaline left. At that point you
need tremendous amounts of rest. By the
end of the flightI was really tired. I have
toadmitthatI was reallyexhausted, inthe
strictmedicalsense. When I came back to
Chicago my doctor said I had complete
adrenal exhaustion. It took acouple of
weeks before I started gettingback to my
normalenergylevels.I thinkthatproblem
of getting tired could beeliminated by
getting rid of some of the stress. Espe-

cially the stress leading up to the flight.
I was probably getting an average of
five orsixhours[ofsleep]out ofevery24.

BL:Was it a restful or a fitful sleep?
KU:If the balloon needed a lot of atten-
tion, if it kept waking me, it was fitful. I

used either a chemical light stick hung in
front of the instruments or a small light
that I would shine at the them. From
where I was lying I could open my eyes
and scan all the instruments. There were
nights that I would wake up every half
hour or hourandscan everything. I would
say there were four nights that I slept
reallywelland there were five nights that
were fairly fitful. There were times the
crew had totellme towake upandchange


BL:What effects do you think high alti-
tude had on you?
KU:At altitude you lose some weight, I
lostabout 20 pounds. Some of that can be
chalked up to less activity, muscle mass
goingaway, lower pressure,
and eating less.
Peter says—how didhe
where no one has gone be-
higher than Mt. Everestand
65 hoursabove 31,000 feet.
We are not sure anyone has
gone tothose altitudes[inan
altitude chamber] forthat
long without a partial pres-
sure suit. We found out the
things that can be done, the
things that are pitfalls, what
we would change and how
we would change it.

BL:Your a pretty big guy.
large. What’sitlikeinthere?
early, bythe third day of the
flight,thatI hated having to
move thingsbeforeI wentto
sleep. Initially thecapsule
wassopackedthat thingson
the bench had to be moved
beforeI could lie down. I
wish Ihad made it afoot
biggerin onedirection.It
warm. The capsule was al-
ways as warm as I wanted it
tobe. Duringthedayitwould
gettoohot and I would have
to open the hatch to cool it
off and turn on the ventila-
tion fan. It was really com-
fortable. Itwasmy home fortenanda half
days and I was pretty happy.
I could sitat my desk and look outof
the hatch. I could lay down on the bench
and sleep. I couldstand upwithmywhole
bodyoutsideof the hatch. I dida lotof that
especially during the day. It was warm
enough. The air temperature was minus
40 but [with] the sunshining youcan
stand there in a T-shirt. It was amazing. I
had a lot of positions available. When I

IMAGE uliassi000504.gif
IMAGE uliassi000505.gif

Endless miles of sand over north Africa.

Balloon Life,May 2000


put the harness on I could stand up on top of the capsule.

BL:What is it like climbing outside of the capsule?
KU:I promised Renee that if I was pastmy waistcomingout of
the capsule, if my legs were outside of the capsule, that I would
wear the harness. I kept that promise. Pete Fay had given me his
deer hunting harness, which he made. It is made of seat belt
webbing with buckles, snaps that hooked around my shoulders
andaroundthe legs. ThenI hada rope ontheback withacarabiner
that I could hook onto the burner frame. We tested the length,
because one thingthat youwould hate todo ishave a harness, fall
outandhave the rope so longthat you are justkind of looking up
at your tanks and your balloon thinking, “Gosh I wish I’d made
this a couple feet shorter.”
Youwouldlookdownandfeelverysecure. I was surrounded
by a lot of stuff. It doesn’t feel any different from being on the
capsule when it is on the ground, really.
I didone thingthat was kind of frightening, though now itis
humorous. I didn’t share it with anyone. I went out one time to
change tanksatthe verycorner of the capsule. I wassittingonthe
curved corner of the capsule with my feet on two separate tanks
that were hanging from the balloon and reaching out to work on
another tank. I had the harness on and I felt very secure. I was
using all my strength to move a tank around and get the fittings
attached. Suddenly I looked behind me and realized that I had
failed to hook the carabiner up to the burner frame. At that point
I really felt vulnerable. I felt like I was just suspended in space
standingontwotanks. I grabbedon tothetwoloadtapesthatwere
holding those tanks and slowly crept back into the hatch and
hooked myself up. I said, “you are never going todo that again.”
After that, I had a careful checklist, which included making sure
that carabiner was hooked up before I left the hatch!
Itisa beautifulview lookingdownandthe skyisreallyclear.
You’reabovetheclouds and dark bluesky.Youhavethis
beautiful view. It is only when you drop the tanks and you look
down, seeing them dropping away, that you really realize how
high you are.

BL:Your decision to land, how did that come to be?
KU:One little thing after another all lead up to that. The main
thingwas over Calcutta, India one of my regulators, my military

regulator thatfed mymilitary stylemask, which wasthe one that
I was most comfortable with at higher altitudes, failed. By the
time I jerry-riggedthe restof the equipment soI could goback on
the other regulator I was so tired that I decided notto fix it, even
though we had someone finally at the factory that was going to
talk to me. I said, “Let’s talk in the morning and I’llfix it then.”
I justneeded sleep at that point because I had spent better partof
anhour descending to21,000 feet, tearingapartthe entire oxygen
panel, repipingtubes and valves and everything. It wasreallyan
intense hour. Probably a day’s work in one hour based on what
Iwouldnormallydo. I wasjustexhaustedafter that. Islept atleast
a solid nine hours before I woke up and then realized that I was
not going to be going across the Pacific with a regulator that I
didn’t trust. It was either land in Burma, the perfect spot, or
continue on across jungle and parts of China and the [Pacific]. I
knew that I had to stay above 32,000 feet so there was no room
for error with the oxygen.

BL:Is the envelope reusable?
KU:It is in perfect shape. Cary Crawley, a local balloonist (in
fact, the only local balloonist)organized his crew to deflate the
balloon the next morning onto tarps he had brought. I was there
in an advisory capacity—they did all the work.After Ileft,
Balloons of Bagan moved the balloon to Rangoon (Yangon).

BL:What next?
KU:I don’t know. I am not going to committo another attempt.
I would consider one. There are other flightsI want to do. And,
there are a lot of other thingsI want to do in my life. Rightknow
I want give myself time to relax and think. Once I commit to it
then it becomes an obsession, the central focus of my life. So I
want to postpone making any kind of decision like that, either to
do it or not to do it.
The goalof flyingaroundthe world isnolonger an obsession
for me. For 14 years this project and the flight was. Especially
after the embarrassment of the first flight.
For me itwould be pretty hard totop the excitement and the
joy I got out of this flight. From all the way around, the entire
project. I’d hate togo backandtry and dothe same thingandthen
be disappointed. It’s a tough decision.

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Return to Checklist May 2000

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