the surprise of many, especially in the media, Breitling Orbiter
3 moved southwest out of Switzerland
crossing France and the Mediterranean before entering North Africa. “Surely
this was the wrong way for a balloon to travel that was supposed
to catch jet-stream winds that raced eastward?” Journalists
queried? “Not at all”, responded the team managing the
Flight Control Centre at Geneva Airport – a team that included
pilots Brian Smith and John Albury, their better halves Cecilia
and Debbie, plus BBAC Chief Observer Sue Tatford. “We are
simply sending Breitling on a tour of launch sites used by unsuccessful
round-the-world balloons.” While it was a joke, the balloon
did pass close to Almeria in Spain (Cable and Wireless) and Marrakech,
In fact the route was exactly the one planned by meteorologists
Pierre Eckert and Luc Trullemans, because once over Mauritania
in North Africa the forecast change in wind speed and direction
took place and the balloon started to head across Mali, Algeria,
Libya and Egypt.
While over Mali the pilots took the opportunity to remove four
additional and now empty fuel cylinders – added because of the
anticipated slow start – and a collection of huge icicles that
were hanging from the mouth of the balloon and parts of the gondola!
This was unnecessary weight that might have affected the performance
of the craft.
Sensors on the balloon reported that it was behaving perfectly
while the Control Centre in Geneva calculated that fuel consumption
was lower than anticipated. Hopes began to rise. If the weather
remained kind the first RTW flight was becoming a serious possibility.
India and Bangladesh were overflown without hitch. When the balloon crossed Burma
(Myanmar) it was a return to the country that Bertrand had visited when he landed
Breitling Orbiter 2 there in 1998 – but this time they did not stop! Things were
going well with the flight.
Of course, there was still the problem of China ahead. Following a visit to Beijing
by pilot Bertrand Piccard and Alan Noble of Cameron Balloons, the Chinese government
had granted the Breitling team permission to fly across Chinese airspace above
47 degrees North, or below 26 degrees South. The balloon breezed across southern
China South of the 26th parallel – but only just. At one point it came within
Crossing the Pacific Ocean by balloon is not a trip that should be embarked upon
by those who don’t like flying over water. Bertrand and Brian are numbered
among those people, and as they left the coast of China they admitted their worries
to the Control Centre staff in Geneva. But on they went. And as they went their
spirits dropped as the wind speed dropped. The jet streams predicted by the meteorologists
Control Centre staff had another problem to think about. Should they move the
balloon North towards the Polar jet stream, which would have meant flying over
some areas of rain but at least the high speed winds were already established
on the charts, or South to meet a subtropical jet that meteorologist Luc Trullemans
forecast would appear, but which didn’t presently exist.
Alan Noble, acting as Flight Director for the Breitling team, decided to gamble
on the Belgian meteorologist being correct. He knew that air traffic control
restrictions would reduce the height, and therefore the speed, at which the balloon
would be able to travel if he opted to send it via the Polar jet as this wind
would eventually take the Roziere balloon over the busy North Atlantic. The quieter
southern route had no ATC restrictions. It turned out to be a good decision.
Should they continue their flight across the Atlantic? Fuel was adequate for
a fast flight but if the winds continued to fail them they might not reach the
West coast of Africa.
And again, as forecast, they found the jet stream that would take them over the
Atlantic. It was fast; so fast that it soon became obvious that not only had
they adequate fuel reserves to complete the flight at 9 degrees 27 minutes West
– their furthest point West after leaving Switzerland – but would be able to
fly-on and find a more hospitable landing site than sub-Saharan Mauritania.
You are cleared to continue across the Atlantic.”, they were told from control.”We
aren’t going to stop anyway, because to stop is the certain way to fail.”,
was Bertrand’s confident reply!
Before launch 19 days earlier Brian Jones had predicted a landing by the pyramids
in Egypt. It looked as though he might have guessed correctly.
Having celebrated the successful completion of the round-the-world flight with
champagne, Alan journalists took a private jet to Egypt where by good luck –
or clever anticipation and navigation if you believe Alan’s version – they
were present as the balloon began its landing approach and were able to help
talk Brian, who was at the controls, by VHF radio to a safe landing…landing…landing!” I
was a bit ashamed of the first touchdown, I almost got it right with the second,
but the final one was good – especially considering I’d never landed a
balloon of this type before.” Said Brian afterwards.
So the greatest balloon flight in aviation history ended safely.
The Cameron Roziere envelope with its insulating double skin had behaved perfectly
and performed exactly as predicted by computer simulation. The advanced Kevlar
and carbon fibre gondola had kept the crew alive and well for 21 days with external
temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees C. and at altitudes in excess of 38,000
feet (11,737 m) where air pressure is only one quarter that on the surface. There
had been some irritating system problems, but redundancy and good communications
with engineers on the ground, especially Pete Johnson and Dave Boxall at Cameron
Balloons, had overcome these.
Reprinted with permission from Cameron Balloons Ltd., Bristol, England. © Cameron
Balloons Ltd 2001. All Rights Reserved.