(WHTM) — It sounds like the title of a Jules Verne novel from the 19th century, but it’s been described as the last great adventure of the 20th century-and it used a balloon design from the 18th century.
On March 1, 1999, Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard (son of Jaques Piccard, grandson of Auguste Piccard) and English balloonist Brian Jones took off from the Swiss Alpine village of Château-d’Oex aboard the Breitling Orbiter 3. Their goal? Become the first people to circle the world in a balloon nonstop and without replenishing supplies, and win the Budweiser Cup, a one million dollar prize offered by Anheuser-Busch.
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In a way, this journey began 21 years earlier, when a three-man crew became the first balloonists to cross the Atlantic aboard the Double Eagle II. Over the next two decades balloon technology improved, and new distance records were set. The behavior of the jet stream, the bands of high winds in the upper atmosphere, were better understood; riding the streams to make better time figured in the planning of most long-distance ballooning. By the 1990s, circumnavigating the globe in a balloon was less a matter of if than when.
The Breitling Orbiter 3 used a Rozière balloon, a hybrid design built by the Cameron Balloon Company in England. It had two chambers, one for a lighter-than-air gas like helium or hydrogen, and another larger chamber for heated air. The hybrid design was the creation of Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to make a manned balloon flight in the 1700s. (Piccard and Jones’ balloon was named after Breitling SA, a Swiss precision watch company.) Propane to fuel six burners was stored in tanks on the outside of the gondola. Solar panels charged batteries which provided electricity for radios and GPS.
After drifting southwest, Piccard and Jones picked up a jet stream over Mauritania. For the next 19 days, as their balloon traveled east, Piccard and Jones maintained a rotating shift, with one sleeping while the other manned the ship, and then eight hours working together. They traveled 25,361 miles, reaching altitudes of up to 38,507 feet, and speeds of up to 123 knots. They crossed the official “finish line” of the circumnavigation over Mauritania at 4:54 AM, EST on March 19.
Then they kept going.
They hoped to finish their journey with a landing near the pyramids in Egypt, but high winds forced them to stop short of their target. They landed in the desert of western Egypt on March 21.
The Gondola of the Breitling Orbiter 3 was later donated to the Smithsonian Institute, and can now be seen at their Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport.
To view a documentary about the flight, click here.