record balloon flights
As the twentieth century
progressed, more altitude and distance balloon records were made and
broken. In August 1957, a U.S. Air Force surgeon, Major David Simons,
climbed to a record 102,100 feet (31,110 meters), remained aloft for 32
hours, and drifted 405 miles (652 kilometres) from his starting point.
Three years later, on
August 27, 1960, that record was broken when a U.S. Air Force captain,
Joseph Kittinger, Jr.,
set a world record for the highest balloon ascent, reaching an altitude of
102,800 feet (31,333 meters) in the Excelsior III. At the
end of his ascent, he jumped out of his gondola and parachuted to the
ground. That descent set another record for the longest parachute freefall—four
minutes and 36 seconds—before
his main parachute opened at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). During his
descent, he reached speeds of up to 614 miles per hour (1,149 kilometres
per hour), approaching the speed of sound without an aircraft or space
vehicle. He fell through air temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees
Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). His flight and parachute jump
demonstrated that it was possible to put a person into space and that
fliers could exit their aircraft at extremely high altitudes and freefall
back into the Earth's atmosphere.
Joseph Kittinger readies himself for a
high-altitude jump, standing beside the Excelsior gondola, August 27, 1960
Kittinger's high-altitude jump, 1960
On May 4, 1961, U.S. Navy
Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather set an
altitude record of 113,740 feet (34,668 meters) on a flight launched from
the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Antietam over the Gulf of Mexico.
Part of the Stratolab project, Ross and Prather ascended in the largest
balloon ever used on a manned flight up to that time. They reached their
maximum altitude two hours and 36 minutes after takeoff. Their achievement
was marred, however, by the death of Prather, who fell from the sling of
the recovery helicopter and died on board the carrier about an hour after
being pulled from the water.
Crossing the Atlantic
Ocean by balloon has always been one of the major challenges that
aeronauts faced. However, all attempts failed until August 1978 when the
Double Eagle II, piloted by Americans Ben Abruzzo, Max Anderson,
and Larry Newman, flew their helium-filled balloon from Presque Isle,
Maine, to Miserey, France. The crew left Maine on August 11 and landed in
France on August 17, setting a distance record of 3,107 miles (5,000
kilometres) and an endurance record of 137 hours and 6 minutes.
This endurance record
stood until 1992, when two Americans, Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo,
who was the son of Double Eagle crewmember Ben Abruzzo, competed in
the world's first transatlantic race. They left Bangor, Maine, on
September 15, 1992, were blown off course, and landed near Fez, Morocco, a
record-setting 146 hours and 16 minutes later.
Captain Kittinger was the
first to make a solo Atlantic crossing. On September 14-18, 1984, he flew
from Caribou, Maine, to the Italian Riviera near Savona, Italy, in the
105,944-cubic-foot (3,000 cubic meter) helium-filled Rosie O'Grady.
His trip covered 3,535 miles (5,690 kilometres) in 86 hours.
The Pacific Ocean also was
a challenge to balloonists. The first balloon flight to cross the Pacific
Ocean was crewed by Abruzzo, Newman, Rocky Aoki, and Ron Clark in November
1981, who flew from Nagashima, Japan, to Covello, California. The first
solo transpacific flight was made in 1995, by American Steve Fossett, who
flew from Seoul, South Korea, to a point near Leader, Saskatchewan,
Canada, setting a distance record of 5,208 miles (8,380 kilometres). He
also broke the world records for distance and duration in January 1997, by
flying 9,672 miles (15,562 kilometres) in the Solo Spirit in a
flight lasting 146 hours and 54 minutes and which went from St. Louis,
Missouri to India. This was one of the earlier attempts to circle the
globe by balloon.
Bertrand Piccard, Auguste Piccard's grandson, and Briton Brian Jones made
the most recent record-breaking balloon flight, Flying in the Breitling
Orbiter 3, it was the first non-stop trip around the world by balloon.
The balloon left Château-d'Oex, Switzerland, on March 1, 1999, and landed
at 1:02 a.m. on March 21 in the Egyptian desert 300 miles (482 kilometres)
south of Cairo. The two men broke distance, endurance, and time records,
travelling 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes. Their route travelled south
from the Swiss Alps over North Africa, where they caught the jet stream
heading east toward the Arabian Desert, crossing India, and over Southeast
Asia. They had a smooth Pacific crossing that they completed in six days.
But east of Central America and 7 miles (11 kilometres) up, the
balloonists were trapped in light spiralling winds and temperatures
dropped to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) in their cabin,
causing breathing problems. Winds finally improved and they picked up the
jet stream again, which propelled them across the Atlantic Ocean on their
The two men were aided by
advances in balloon technology and weather forecasting, as well as by the
global positioning system (GPS). These advances allowed the ground control
team to track the balloon's route and calculate its best altitude to take
advantage of high-altitude jet stream winds that blew at velocities as
high as 200 miles per hour (321 kilometres per hour) The balloon travelled
at altitudes as high as 36,000 feet (11,000 meters) and as fast as 105
miles per hour (176 kilometres per hour) across the Pacific Ocean.
The crew also had to
obtain permission to fly over each of the countries along the route. This
can be a problem because the wind may carry the balloon over countries
where permission has been denied. In past attempts, flights have had to be
aborted because permission was denied. One balloon was even shot down and
the pilots killed by a Belarussian helicopter gunship on September 12,
The Breitling Orbiter 3
was constructed by Cameron Balloons of Bristol, England, and was 180
feet (55 meters) tall. Piccard and Jones were squeezed into a capsule that
measured only 17 feet 10 inches (5.4 meters) long and 10 feet 3 inches
(3.1 meters) high.
believe they are engaged in the ultimate aviation sport. No matter how
many balloon flights take place, each has to face the unique vagaries of
the wind and the atmosphere—something that cannot be said for more routine
and predictable powered flight.