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AROUND THE WORLD BY BALLOON

    History was made at 4:54 AM, Eastern Standard Time, Saturday, March 20, 1999, when the Breitling Orbiter 3 achieved the first nonstop round-the world balloon flight.  After 19 days aloft, Switzerland's Bertrand Piccard, and the British pilot, Brian Jones, crossed an invisible line over the vast African desert and became the first aviators to circumnavigate the world in a hot-air balloon.  They finally touched down early Sunday morning in southern Egypt, near the town of Mut, 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes after their lift-off and after having travelled over 29,000 miles.  In doing so, they claimed the trophy for long distance ballooning, established in 1906, by James Gordon Bennett, a U.S. publisher.  

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This was the third and final attempt sponsored by the Swiss watch and precision instrument manufacturer, Breitling.  The balloon floated over Mauritania past the 9 degree west longitude mark to complete the 26,179 mile trip, non-stop, a feat that has challenged and eluded dozens of balloonist before them.  The journey was arduous and the duo experienced winds as slow as 20 miles per hour (mph), using up precious fuel at 8,000 feet altitude, to speeds of 100 mph in the jet streams at more than 35,000 feet.

Piccard, a 41-year-old psychiatrist who comes from a family of pioneers, used self-hypnosis during the flight to help cope with the tension.  Jones, a 51-year-old balloon instructor, relied on his steady nerves to get him through the trip.   Both endured the flight in a capsule that measured 16 1/2 x 10 feet.  The balloon itself was 180 feet high.  These two balloonists were backed by members of Orbiter 3 control center consisting of Alan Noble, Pierre Eckert, Luc Trullemans and Gerard Sermier, who kept in constant contact with the balloonists and provided them with information needed to achieve this feat.

The team lifted off from the snowy Swiss Alps on March 1, traveled south over the North African terrain, caught the jet stream east toward the Arabian Desert, India, and over Southeast Asia.  The Pacific Ocean, which has been treacherous to previous balloon attempts, was smooth, and its crossing was accomplished in six days.   East of Central America and seven miles up, the balloonists were trapped in a lazy spiral causing breathing problems to the two balloonists.  Catching the jet stream, which finally found them, they were propelled across the Atlantic on their last leg.   Piccard and Jones will collect the cash prize of one million US dollars offered by the US brewery Anheuser-Busch since 1997 for the first balloon crew to fly around the world before the turn of this century.

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Piccard's adventurous nature is traditional in his family.  In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was part of a duo that became the first men ever to take a balloon into the stratosphere, rising almost 10 miles.  Three years later Auguste's twin brother, Jean-Felix, broke his brother's record, soaring even higher to 11 miles.

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The first serious attempt at around-the-world flight began December 12, 1981, when Maxie Anderson and Don Ida flew 2,676 miles in the balloon Jules Verne from their lift-off in Luxor, Egypt, to their touchdown in Hansa, India, 48 hours later.  The next longest balloon flight, in terms of miles, was made by the Solo Spirit 3, flown by Steve Fossett on August 7, 1998, covering 14,236 miles in almost 206 hours.   Piccard and Jones also beat the endurance record of 426 hours and 25 minutes set by Andy Elson and Colin Prescott in the balloon Cable and Wireless just two weeks prior.


The preceding information was taken from several Miami Herald articles and embellished.
The original articles appeared in the Miami Herald from Saturday, March 20, 1999 to Monday, March 22, 1999.


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Updated: 12 March, 2004