Three weeks, 29,000 miles, no stops

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

I'm with the angels," a jubilant Bertrand Piccard declared after he and fellow pilot Brian Jones achieved that elusive aeronautical challenge - circling the globe nonstop in a balloon.

But the two men are also now up there with the likes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, and other 20th-century adventurers who had the right stuff, the right technology, and in this case, the right winds.

Their voyage was as epic as the Jules Verne classic, "Around the World in 80 Days," but it only took 19 days for the Piccard-Jones team to float 29,000 miles from the Swiss Alps to land near an Egyptian oasis called Mut.

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They navigated the 10-ton craft - a cramped pressurized capsule below a silver balloon the size of the Tower of Pisa - searching for jet streams at the frigid heights where airliners fly.

"It's not really a picnic," Mr. Piccard told his control center in Geneva on Friday, with the capsule at 46 degrees F.

He burst into tears that night when controllers told him there would be enough fuel to complete the flight, which took a total of 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes.

Strong wind currents pushed the record-setting balloonists across the Atlantic Friday night, blowing them over the West African country of Mauritania to cross longitude 9.27 degrees west - the longitude where their voyage officially started after the pair swung the balloon down from Switzerland.

On reaching the goal, Mr. Jones, a former Royal Air Force pilot, told the control center in Geneva, "I am going to tell my wife I love her. Then I'm going to have a cup of tea, like any good Englishman."

The duo also thanked the control crew, and noted, "We can hardly believe our dream has finally come true.... We are eternally grateful to the invisible hand who has guided us through all the obstacles of this fantastic voyage."

The quest for a safe landing spot led them to return to earth at last near Mut, an oasis town in Egypt's Western Desert about 300 miles southwest of Cairo.

The two were kept busy as strong winds on the ground began blowing the balloon along the desert sands. "The winds tipped it over, and we had to run around the balloon with our knives to make holes to keep from being dragged across the desert," Jones said.

After traveling a total of 29,056 miles - 2,500 on top of the round-the-world-record - Piccard and Jones had to wait about eight hours for an Egyptian helicopter to pick them up from the remote site, once a Roman outpost.

Decades-long quest

The journey, a marriage of high adventure and high technology, was followed by tens of thousands of fans on a continually updated Web site. To top off the glory, the pair won a $1 million prize - half to go to a charity of their choice - and will have a Swiss postage stamp issued in their honor.

They succeeded - it was Piccard's third try - where nearly two-dozen attempts by hot-air balloonists over two decades had failed. Others who had sought the same goal include British tycoon Richard Branson and Chicago options trader Stephen Fossett, whose latest attempt went down in the Pacific Ocean on Christmas Day.

The global competition, and public interest, in the man versus nature contest grew as Piccard's former copilot Andy Elson and a colleague, just a two weeks ago, flew their Cable and Wireless balloon more than 9,000 miles, only to have the flight aborted by a thunderstorm off Japan.

Undeterred, Piccard lifted off from Chateau d'Oex, a ballooning center in Switzerland, on March 1. Due to weather considerations, it was one of the last possible days for the flight.

He and Jones had waited weeks for favorable weather conditions to launch the Breitling Orbiter 3, the third balloon financed by the Swiss watch and flight-instrumentmaker Breitling, which has backed Piccard since he approached them five years ago with the idea for a round-the-world flight.

His first attempt, in 1997, was aborted when a fuel leak caused toxic fumes to enter the cabin. The second effort ended in February 1998 when the balloon landed in a rice paddy in Burma (Myanmar).

Try, try, try again

Preparations for the third flight began almost immediately, according to Breitling spokeswoman Monika Pieren, and the project switched from experimental kerosene, which proved difficult to handle, to more traditional propane fuel.

A new gondola, or cabin, needed to be constructed, and a new balloon with an improved design.

Overall, the Breitling Orbiter 3 has three layers: a top insulating layer to shield it from the elements; an intermediate helium cell or picket; and a hot-air cone heated by propane canisters, which is necessary to keep the balloon aloft.

In addition, a new fuel system was installed to accommodate the heavier propane canisters. The 10-ton aircraft, with enough room to hold 650,000 cubic feet of helium, was ready by the end of November, awaiting the weather window that would allow the balloon to pick up the jet stream that would propel it around the globe.

The fuel system was changed because the Orbiter 2 flight consumed large amounts of kerosene in order to maintain the craft's altitude. This is because helium expands during daylight hours, but contracts in the cool of night after the sun sets.

In the new design, ventilator fans powered by solar panels keep the helium pocket - the size of which was reduced in the Orbiter 3 to lessen the volume of air to be heated - cool in the day. The propane burners heat it at night.

Working together, the two systems help keep the helium steady.

For 20 days, Piccard and Jones concentrated on piloting the 180-foot-high balloon, rising and dropping to seek the winds that would allow them to steer.

They had to maneuver to catch the jet stream, some 20,000 feet above the earth, to travel more quickly and to avoid stalling.

They had to closely monitor their fuel use as well as weather conditions. When ice accumulated on the propane burners, they had to climb outside, a rather precarious business, to chip it off.

And they had to live together in rotating duty shifts in a sealed capsule only 9 feet high, 8 feet wide, and 18 feet long, and jammed not only with high-tech equipment but also with basic survival gear, such as parachutes and inflatable dinghies, in case of a sea landing.

Surviving in such cramped quarters may have been one of the hardest parts, since Piccard declined to repeat the experience with two men who flew with him on previous flights, with no public explanation. Jones, a ballooning instructor from Devizes, England, had worked at the control center for a previous flight.

Legacy of adventure

Despite all the hardships, Piccard and Jones were clearly elated that their odyssey succeeded.

For Piccard, there was family honor involved: His grandfather, Auguste Piccard, invented the pressurized cabin - the same principle employed in the Orbiter's capsule.

The elder Piccard used it in 1931 to become the first person to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, rising nearly 10 miles into the air. His twin brother, Jean-Felix, set an 11-mile record three years later.

Auguste Piccard also invented the bathyscaph, a deep-sea submersible that carries passengers.

Jacques Piccard, Bertrand's father, used that device to set a record by descending to the globe's deepest point, the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean in 1960. On hearing of his son's success, he said, "I always encouraged my children to realize their dreams."

Despite achieving a great feat of personal endurance, Piccard, friends say, is expected to return to his practice as a psychiatrist in Switzerland.

Jacques Piccard noted that, "When you achieve something like this, it is something that remains with you forever."

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