Realizing the ultimate aviation feat : the first non-stop round the world ballon flight, the longest ever, for distance and duration, in the history of aviation
There are several ways of describing Breitling Orbiter 3’s first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight. There is the philosophical angle, with dreams and perseverance combining to make the “impossible” a reality. You could focus on the writing of a new page in the history books, or on the human adventure - using the strength of the wind to fly further and for longer than anyone had ever previously managed. Then there’s the technology - developing a balloon capable of staying aloft for three weeks. Not to mention the sporting angle, with several world records thrown in. It was the combination of all of these different aspects that caught Bertrand’s imagination. They contain all the elements of an epic adventure, and explain why this flight captured so many people’s interest.
This adventure was also to take on the character of a technological challenge. When Bertrand started planning the Breitling Orbiter project, no balloon had ever remained airborne for more than six days, whereas the meteorologists were recommending an endurance of three weeks. It would be necessary to build a gigantic envelope, 55 meters high and covered with a layer of thermal insulation, as well as a pressurized cabin allowing the crew to survive at altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000 meters, where the jet-streams blow.
Over several years, numerous contestants launched serious research projects but suffered spectacular failures: Max Anderson’s Jules Verne balloon, Larry Newman’s Earthwind, the Virgin Global Challenger of Richard Branson, Bertrand Piccard’s Breitling Orbiter, the Solo Spirit of Steve Fossett, Kevin Uliassi’s J-Renée, Global Hilton of Dick Rutan, and Andy Elson’s Cable & Wireless, to mention only those that managed to get off the ground. If it had been easy, everyone would already have done it!
Another aspect fascinated Bertrand: the symbolic significance of these attempts. The development of science had led to amazing progress in the last two centuries, but most inventions were aimed at giving men better control over the forces of nature. In ballooning, pilots submit to the elements, allowing themselves to be swept along by air currents. A balloon is propelled only by the wind, so can move only at the same speed and in the same direction as the wind. Against this background, the role of technology is limited to understanding the atmosphere, playing with it more effectively - in short, concluding an alliance with Nature.
« To cross oceans drifting with the wind - what could possibly be more marvelous, more precarious, more sophisticated? Poetry and technology are in harmony here….In the immortal footsteps of his grandfather and his father, Bertrand Piccard has added a splendid and moving page to his great family saga. »
12 January 1997 : Bertrand had announced a 15-day flight in the jet-streams. After only 6 hours in the air, his gondola was floating miserably in the Mediterranean ! A massive fuel leak and consequent risk of explosion had forced him and his fellow crew-member, Wim Verstraeten, to make an emergency ditching. February 1998 : Second Breitling Orbiter attempt. After a nine-day flight, another disappointment, despite breaking the absolute world endurance record. The detour made necessary by the ban on flying over China forced Bertrand and his two fellow crew-members, Andy Elson and Wim Verstraeten, to land in Burma. End of winter, 1999 – and all his competitors had failed. Bertrand, accompanied this time by the Englishman Brian Jones, took off on 1st March 1999 from the village of Châteaux-d’Oex in the Swiss Alps on board Breitling Orbiter 3. The first problem was to fly south to below the 26°N parallel to comply with Chinese restrictions. For Pierre Eckert and Luc Trullemans, the two weather wizards, it was like threading a needle at a distance of 15,000 kilometers ! But they brought it off. A voyage around the world is also a world tour of nations, people and regional politics. Air-traffic controllers and Swiss diplomats were constantly being called upon to help open the routes across Egypt, Yemen, India, China and Japan. Strategic decision-making was often painful. Was it better to fly further north in a fast airstream or stay south in slower winds ? Approaching the Pacific, the question became even more critical, as the southerly route added 4,000 kilometers to the journey! But this was the option the meteorologists favored, because storms were raging in the North. In winds of 30 km/h, surrounded by storm-clouds and out of contact with mission-control because of satellite antenna problems, Bertrand and Brian watched helplessly as their prospects of success receded with the diminishing reserves of propane gas. The vast ocean below made them homesick for the reassuring splendor of the African desert and the Indian plains that the balloon had flown over. After six agonizing days, the meteorologists’ gamble paid off. The balloon at last entered a powerful jet stream that carried it towards Mexico at 180km/h. But then the speed slumped once again and the jet stream spat the pilots out in the direction of Venezuela, just as it had dumped Richard Branson several months earlier, forcing him to ditch south of Hawaii. On 20th March, Bertrand and Brian stormed across the final meridian in their dream adventure at 200 km/h, landing the following day in Egypt and entering the annals with the longest flight in aviation history, both for distance and duration. But more important than their seven world records, they were left with the feeling that they had succeeded in forging a more intimate and respectful relationship with our planet.
Considered to be the final adventure of the 20th Century, the flight around the world by balloon gives us a glimpse of the importance of forging a new alliance between human beings, technology and nature.
The poles, the continents, mountains, space, the ocean depths – all had been explored. But even though the balloon had been invented back in 1783, none had ever flown around the world! Several balloonists had already made attempts to convert Jules Verne’s fantasy into reality (the first dates back to 1981), but the real race only began in the early 1990s. The FAI (World Air Sports Federation) laid down the rules: to fly at least 25,000 km, crossing all the meridians whilst remaining between two caps of radius 3,335.85 km centered on each of the Poles.
Like balloons, human beings have to change altitude if they wish to change direction in the winds of life.
Eleven days to reach the Pacific, concentrating 100% on accurately maintaining the precise altitudes calculated by the meteorologists, sometimes flying in jet-streams, but often also in much slower winds, playing with areas of low pressure over the Mediterranean and high pressure over India.
In a desperate last move to find better winds approaching the Caribbean, Bertrand increased the stakes, using up a huge amount of propane to gain as much altitude as possible. At 10,500 meters, the airflow miraculously started blowing them back on track. But they still had 10,000 kilometers to go and were down to the last eighth of their fuel reserves. Success was possible only if the wind strengthened four-fold… And that’s precisely what happened !
Breitling Orbiter 3 found a final resting place in the main hall of Washington’s prestigious Smithsonian Air and Space Museum alongside the Apollo 11 capsule and the legendary airplanes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Chuck Yeager.
The pilots were feted all around the world and received by several monarchs and heads of state. Bertrand was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the Olympic Order, the French Youth and Sport and Aeronautical Medals, as well as the highest distinctions of the FAI (World Air Sports Federation), the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club, the American Academy of Achievement and several other aeronautical, scientific and sporting bodies. Nominated Honorary Professor, and awarded honorary doctorates in Science and Letters, Bertrand also received the Grand Prix of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations (UNFPA). His name appeared alongside those of his father and grandfather in the Larousse encyclopedia.
In his twin roles as doctor and explorer, Bertrand became much in demand as a speaker for large companies and international organizations. They are interested in his vision, career path, and heritage combining science with human values.
The two pilots, together with their sponsor Breitling, fulfilled the promise they had made on landing to dedicate their achievement to the world’s children and to help neglected suffering people. They launched the Winds of Hope foundation, using their celebrity to support the struggle against Noma, a horrifying disease that disfigures the faces of hundreds of thousands of children in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia.
« A balloon lifting off into the icy winter sky, soaring up above the mountain tops, and then disappearing. We all gazed childlike as Piccard and his colleague rose into the air searching for the winds that should carry them round the world. As simple as Icarus’ dream. Like a page from a Jules Verne novel. Like some fabric of madness, volatile and elegant, clinging to the tatters of our gravity. Piccard’s adventure isn’t a technical one, or at least not only that. First and foremost, it’s a spiritual adventure. Piccard is not some Jules Verne charac-ter, not a Passepartout, nor even a Phileas Fogg. He’s more like St. Exupéry flying over the desert. His vision of the world is that of the Little Prince…
I’d almost say that whether he succeeds or not is of secondary importance. Unlike the rest of us Earthlings, at least he will have been to have a look. “Men are not like me,” said one of Malraux’s heroes. “They stare at me and judge me. My fellow creatures are those who love me and don’t watch my every move. One would like to think of Piccard as Chang’s scarf, lost among the rocks, which draws Hergé’s hero Tintin to embark on a quest for the absolute. Not for the adventure in itself, but for brotherhood amongst men…
Let us wish fair winds for Bertrand Piccard. Let us wish for the Heavens, in all meanings of the term, to be on his side. »
Countries over-flown : Switzerland, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Mo- rocco, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt. Landed on 21 March 1999 at Dakhla (Egypt) Total Distance : 45
12 January 1997: forced ditching in the Mediterranean six hours into the flight, following a fuel leak in the cabin.
28 January to 7 February 1998 : absolute world endurance record for all categories of flight. Landed in Burma because of the ban on overflying China. Distance :8,473 km - Flight time : 233 h 55
1st to 21st March 1999 : First non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, longest flight in aviation history for both distance and duration. Took off on 1st March 1999 from Château-d’Oex (Swiss Alps)
plucked fRom deseRt
um die welt
on cloud nine
and in only 20 days