Breitling Orbiter 3
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones guided the balloon Breitling Orbiter 3 up and away from the Swiss Alpine village of Chateau d'Oex at 8:05, GMT, 1March 1999. They landed in the Egyptian desert 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes later (21 March 1999), having traveled a distance of over 29,000 miles and completed the first non-stop flight around the world with a free balloon.
The success of Breitling Orbiter 3 was based on the lessons learned during two previous attempts to fly around the globe in 1997 (Breitling Orbiter) and 1998 (Breitling Orbiter 2). That experience enabled the Breitling team to develop trustworthy technical systems and a basic strategy that called for Piccard and Jones to pilot their balloon to altitudes of over 30,000 feet, where jet stream winds would drive it across the Pacific at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.
Breitling Orbiter 3 was designed and built by Cameron Balloons, of Bristol, England. When fully inflated it stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall. The envelope is constructed of a nylon fabric welded to a helium-tight membrane covered with an outer protective skin that is coated with aluminum on both sides to provide improved thermal control. The shape and special features of the envelope were designed to insure maximum temperature stability in order to conserve helium and reduce propane consumption.
The envelope is a Rozier design, combining the advantages of helium and hot air technologies to create a balloon capable of extended flights. A large cell of helium is placed within a specially designed hot air balloon. Six propane-fed burners warm the helium at night, while a system of insulation and vents reduce the effect of solar heating during the day. The result is a balloon that remains at a fairly constant altitude, conserving helium and making it possible to remain aloft for extended periods. The propane gas that fueled the six burners of Breitling Orbiter 3 was contained in 28 titanium cylinders mounted in two rows along the sides of the gondola.
Their epic journey was applauded as one of the great aviation adventures of the century. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain spoke for millions around the world in a special message to the balloonists: "The news of your splendid achievement has delighted us all."
On March 21, 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Bryan Jones guided Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to fly around the world non-stop, to a safe landing on a desolate stretch of desert in Western Egypt. It was a happy ending to a story that had begun in June 1980, when English pilot and balloon builder Don Cameron announced that a group of adventurers planned to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.
That original project did not result in a launch, but it did establish the goal. Over the next two decades, 18 teams announced their intention to accept the challenge. Seven of those teams launched a total of sixteen balloons in unsuccessful attempts to fly around the world. In the fall of 1997, the Anheuser-Busch Company offered a trophy and a one million dollar prize (one half of which was to be donated to charity) to the first balloonists to achieve what was widely recognized as "the last great aviation challenge of the century." While none of the teams had achieved that elusive goal by the end of 1998, they had captured the public imagination with a series of record-breaking long distances flights and hair's breadth escapes from danger.
That Bertrand Piccard should be attracted to the challenge was quite natural. An experienced aviator who has flown everything from ultralights to high performance aerobatic aircraft, he is the grandson of the Swiss scientist who developed the pressurized balloon gondola; flew a balloon into the stratosphere for the first time (27 May 1931) with companion Paul Kipfer; and invented the Bathyscaph, a research submarine in which Bertrand's father Jacques descended to a depth of 10,916 meters, the deepest spot in the world's oceans.
Piccard has explained that circumnavigating the world in a balloon is "a fabulous metaphor for life - to try is the only way to succeed." He made two unsuccessful attempts to capture the prize in 1997 and 1998, accompanied by crewman Wim Verstaeten and with the support of Breitling SA, Swiss manufacturers of fine chronometers. The lessons learned on the Breitling Orbiters 1 and 2 flights provided a firm foundation of experience that enabled the team to develop trustworthy technical systems and a basic strategy for the Breitling Orbiter 3 project.
Designed and built by Cameron Balloons, of Bristol, England, Breitling Orbiter 3 stood 180 feet (55 meters) tall when fully inflated. Like most of the balloons entered in the around the world competition, it combined the advantages of hot air and helium technologies to create a balloon capable of remaining aloft for extended periods of time. The envelope was constructed of a nylon fabric welded to a helium-tight membrane, covered with an outer protective skin coated with aluminum on both sides to provide improved thermal control. The shape and special features of the envelope insured maximum temperature stability in order to maintain a constant altitude, conserve helium and reduce propane consumption.
The propane gas that fueled the six burners of Breitling Orbiter 3 was contained in 28 titanium cylinders mounted in two rows along the sides of the gondola. Concerned about fuel consumption, the team added four additional propane containers prior to take-off. It was a wise decision. The balloon landed in the Egyptian desert almost three weeks after take-off with less than a quarter of a tank of fuel remaining.
The Breitling Orbiter 3 gondola was constructed of a weave of Kevlar and carbon fiber material. After take-off the cabin was sealed at 6000 feet to trap the air within it. During the flight the cabin atmosphere was supplemented by oxygen, and the carbon dioxide was removed by lithium hydroxide filters. Cabin pressure was maintained at around 3.5 psi by adding oxygen and nitrogen to the cabin air, as necessary. At 10,000 meters (33,000 feet), the cabin pressure equaled the atmospheric pressure at 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). Solar panels suspended beneath the gondola recharged the onboard lead-acid batteries that provided electrical power. Satellite-based systems enabled the crew to communicate and navigate.
Bertrand Piccard and Bryan Jones guided Breitling Orbiter 3 up and away from the Swiss Alpine village of Chateau d'Oex at 8:05, GMT, 1March 1999. They landed in the Egyptian desert 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes later (March 21, 1999), having traveled a distance of 40,814 kilometers (25,361 miles). During the course of the trip, the balloon had climbed to altitudes of up to 11,373 meters (37,313 feet), and achieved a maximum speed of 161 knots per hour.
The journey was far from easy. The two crewmen spent almost three weeks in a confined space roughly the size of a recreational vehicle. The daily routine called for each man to spend eight hours alone at the controls; eight hours working with his crewmate; and eight hours in the single bunk. In spite of heaters designed to maintain a fairly comfortable 15 degrees C (59 degrees F), cabin temperatures occasionally fell so low that drinking water froze and ice had to be carefully chipped away from delicate electronic circuitry on the interior walls. Jones suffered with a cold, while Piccard resorted to self-hypnosis to fight depression and fall asleep. Having consumed the fresh food during the first few days of flight, the two balloonists subsisted on dehydrated meals. "When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, he was happy to be so far away," Bertrand Piccard commented after the flight. "When we stepped onto the desert, we were happy to put our footprints back on earth."
In spite of the hardships, the two crewmen were able to find a deeper meaning in their great adventure. "For me, the flight was a unique opportunity to establish a friendlier relationship with our planet," Piccard explains. "Human beings always want to control nature, but flying around the world by balloon … we must harmonize with nature, following the rhythm of the wind."
On the morning of Monday, March 22, 1999, the Washington Post carried a front page feature article, "Earthbound but on Cloud Nine," following up on the successful conclusion of the flight of Breitling Orbiter 3 the day before. Asked by reporter Howard Schneider about the fate of Breitling Orbiter 3, the balloon that had carried the two adventurers on their historic voyage, project manager Alan Noble remarked that the sponsors and the team "… would probably donate the craft to a museum -- possibly the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian."
Was the gondola of Breitling Orbiter 3 something that we wished to acquire for the NASM? There was no question about that. The museum staff takes special pride in preserving and displaying the world's finest collection of historic globe-girdling aircraft. These included: The Douglas World Cruiser Chicago that made the first trip around the world in 1924; the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae in which Wiley Post made headlines with world flights in 1931 and 1933; several light aircraft that made the trip after WW II; The Spirit of Texas, which Ross Perot, Jr. and Jay Coburn piloted on the first helicopter circumnavigation; and Voyager in which Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager made history with the first flight of an airplane around the world, non-stop and unrefueled. Breitling Orbiter 3 would be a worthy addition to that collection, a reminder of one of the great adventures in the history of flight.
Actually acquiring the gondola was not an easy task, however. The real credit for the success belongs to the then NASM director, the late Admiral Donald Engen. Thanks in large measure to his superb negotiating skills and wide contacts in aviation and business, Breitling Orbiter 3 now rests in a place of honor in NASM's Milestones of Flight gallery, a proud addition to our collection of world-circling aircraft.