Three weeks, 29,000 miles, no stops
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.