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May 18th 2020

Air Apparent: The Broken Balloon Barriers of Betrand Piccard

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Nineteen days, 21 hours and 55 minutes. In 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones discovered that’s how long it takes to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon — becoming the first in history to accomplish this feat and paving the way for Piccard’s future work on ultra-light solar technologies.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. While the Breitling Orbiter 3 made the nearly three-week trip from Switzerland to Egypt successfully, Orbiters 1 and 2 weren’t so lucky. And the field was heating up: Other explorers including Richard Branson and Steve Fossett were also investing in hot air adventures, attempting to secure their spots as the first the balloon-based circumnavigators.

Piccard and Jones prevailed, but their balloon triumph took plenty of planning, leveraging of lessons learned — and a generous helping of good luck.

Up, Up and … Uh-Oh

Balloon travel comes with significant ups and downs. The Hindenburg offers a stark example of worst-case scenario in action; while the zeppelin industry is now recovering, it took decades after the disaster for companies and customers to get comfortable with the idea again.

On a smaller scale, Piccard and Jones faced the problem of exposure rather than explosions; bad weather could rip their balloon to shreds. While the Smithsonian notes that the gondola of Piccard’s craft was made of Kevlar and carbon fiber to withstand the journey, the balloon itself was aluminum-coated nylon fiber — this offers improved thermal control but almost no defense against hail or other severe weather events. Steering and fuel were the other persistent problems. Lacking precise control, Piccard and Jones relied on wind currents to carry the day, but this required precise application of fuel to ensure they found the right jet stream at the right time.

Previous attempts proved the difficulty of this endeavor. As noted by Piccard’s official website, Richard Branson attempted the same journey earlier in 1999 but was forced to crash-land near Hawaii after the jet stream petered out. According to the BBC, adventurer Steve Fossett made several attempts — in 1997 and 1998 — but both ended in failure. Bertrand Piccard also experienced unhappy endings: Breitling Orbiter 1 was only in the air for six hours in 1997 before a fuel leak forced an emergency landing. The second iteration fared better in February 1998, making it nine days and breaking world distance records before a detour around Chinese airspace popped the potential of this journey with a landing in Burma.

But on March 1, 1999, Piccard was ready to try again.

With Rozier-Colored Glasses

By the time Piccard and Jones touched down, they’d broken more than a few world records. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the pair set absolute records for:

  • Distance: 25,361 miles (40,814 km)
  • Duration: 477 hours and 47 minutes
  • Shortest time around the world: 370 hours and 24 minutes

Both the distance and duration records still stand, but the shortest time mark was surpassed in 2002 by none other than Steve Fosset — who also earned the record for first solo-circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon — and was broken again by Fedor Konyukhov in 2016.

Converting ambition to accolades, however, required the right balloon technology, and for Piccard that meant using a Rozier design. Rozier balloons combine the features of hot air and gas to deliver the best of both worlds. By leveraging a helium-gas cell with a surrounding hot air envelope, Rozier balloons prevent the lifting gas from cooling overnight to keep the craft at a consistent altitude. Originally developed in 1785, the first iterations used hydrogen but were replaced with helium when it became more widely available after the Second World War, significantly increasing safety.

Piccard and Jones, meanwhile, made the trip inside the 18′ x 12′ x 10′ gondola which included more than 30 titanium cylinders of propane fuel. The cabin itself was sealed once the balloon reached 6,000 feet and contained navigation gear, a radio, a single bunk and a pressure-operated toilet. Solar panels underneath the gondola recharged the lead-acid batteries that powered on-board electrical systems and regular shots of propane into the Rozier envelope kept the helium warm overnight.

Overall? Not the most comfortable of carriers, but strong, light and resilient enough to shatter world records.

The Winds of Change

How do you get a balloon around the globe in 19 days? Turns out you need plenty of practice — and more than little good luck.

Things started promisingly enough: On March 1, 1999, the duo lifted off from Chateau d’Oex in the Swiss Alps. High altitudes caused in-cabin temperature to drop and both balloonists struggled to sleep, but the journey itself was relatively quiet — until they reached the Pacific. While Chinese aviation authorities had relented this time, allowing the balloon to cross their airspace and significantly shortening the journey, on-the-ground weather teams had to decide if it was better to head north into Pacific seas or take the safer southern route. The northern path included storms and blistering cold, while the southern track added more 2,485 miles (4,000 km) to the total distance.

The southern gamble paid off with Piccard and Jones grabbing a 111 mph (180 km/hr) jet stream boost that barreled them toward Mexico, but things quickly went off the rails again. According to Piccard, “On March 17 above Mexico we had one-quarter of the world to overfly with one-eighth of the fuel remaining, and we’d just lost the jet stream. So I thought we were going to fail.” He pushed the balloon as high as he could, using almost all of their fuel reserves. As he reached maximum altitude, the direction and speed of the wind shifted, carrying them across the Atlantic, over Libya and down into Egypt at 124 mph (200 km/hr). When the Breitling Orbiter 3 finally touched down, it had less than one-quarter of one fuel tank left.

The Future of Flight

Accolades aside, the fraught nature of fuel-based flight inspired Piccard to address this aviation limitation. In 2003, he started the Solar Impulse project with the goal of flying a solar-powered plane around the globe. In 2016, Solar Impulse 2 completed the journey in Abu Dhabi — the craft had a wingspan greater than a 747 and used more than 17,000 solar cells.

While gondola-based flights probably won’t replace commercial airliners any time soon, the balloon travel triumph by Piccard and Jones remains an incredible achievement. It’s also a testament to the nature of human ingenuity and the focus on what comes next: What barriers can be broken when we slip the surly bonds of earth?

Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology, and engineering.

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