January 5, 1998
Why the sudden desire to travel around the world in a balloon? Jim Lehrer and guest explore the phenomenon.
KWAME HOLMAN: American millionaire Steve Fossett began his journey aboard Solo Spirit in St. Louis last Wednesday. It was his third attempt to circle the globe in a hot air balloon. The $350,000 craft, fueled by propane burners, took him across the Atlantic and much of Europe before he ran into a series of problems. A lack of strong winds, malfunctions in both his propane burners, and a faulty heater combined to force Fossett to abandon his quest this morning in Southern Russia.
STEVE FOSSETT, Balloonist: I decided that I needed to land because my equipment wasn't going to make it around the world. And, fortunately, this morning Russia issued me the permission--official permission--to land here.
KWAME HOLMAN: When Fossett set down in Krasnodar, Russia, he had covered some 7300 miles, about a third of his route around the world. Fossett was attempting to break his own record of a year ago when he covered more than 10,000 miles and set the record for longest duration in a balloon--six days, two and a half hours. Back in the United States, Fossett's team called his latest try a success.
ALAN BLOUNT, Director, Mission Control: Nobody can diminish the achievement. And if you compare that with the fact that in the last two years there have been now six attempts--two by Steve--and four others--this one is the second longest. And, of course, Steve's last year's flight was "the" longest. So he's doing something right. We haven't got it perfect yet, but we're getting close.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fossett has not announced if he will try again.
STEVE FOSSETT: I've not made any decision. I want to get home and be warm.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fossett's is one of several attempts to circumnavigate the globe in recent weeks. A two-man balloon crew will launch from Albuquerque, New Mexico, tomorrow morning.
JIM LEHRER: And with us now from Albuquerque is Hampton Sides, senior editor of Outside Magazine. He's been covering the balloonist story. So, what drives people like Steve Fossett and these others to want to go around the world in a balloon?
HAMPTON SIDES, Outside Magazine: Well, I tell you one thing. It's not the money because, you know, Anheuser Busch posted a $1 million reward for the first person to go around the globe in a balloon recently. And yet, these people would be doing it with or without that reward. I mean, these are high stakes gamblers. They're eccentric people. We at "Outside" call these guys the "balloonatics." They're unusual people, driven by, I think genuinely driven by the desire to accomplish this feat, which is really one of the last great aeronautical feats left.
JIM LEHRER: Is it really a feat? Is it something special? Does it take a special type of person, or a special type of skill to do this?
HAMPTON SIDES: Yes. I mean, it's not like you just get into this balloon and the winds take you and you end up on the other end of the globe. If that were the case, we would have had this--it would have already happened a long, long time ago. What's unusual about it is not only do these people have exceptional navigation skills, the ability to read weather, wind, obviously have some diplomatic skills as well because they sometimes fly over countries that don't permit them to enter their air space. There's a certain amount of diplomacy just to secure those sorts of permissions. But they also have to in the case of Fossett, for example, have to basically do this without sleeping, very little sleep for a week to two weeks, and the stamina required to do that with the cold, with the stress, it's an exceptional feat.
JIM LEHRER: And they also have to have a lot of money, don't they?
HAMPTON SIDES: They definitely do. To do this sort of long distance balloon you either have to be a millionaire, or you have to have the rare sort of ability to raise millions. I think that's actually not as hard as it may seem because people discovered long ago that a balloon makes a perfect billboard. I think Goodyear discovered that a long time ago. These are--you know--these balloons are crowded with the logos of various sponsors, of course.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what is it--Fossett's thing, to use one example--the one that ended today--how much money did he have tied up in this venture--in the balloon, in the staff, and everything that went into getting him on the ground in Russia today?
HAMPTON SIDES: Well over a million dollars for certain. This is an effort that really goes back three, four, five years on his part. He's been accumulating records left and right. He's the sort of guy who goes after records. And it's a fierce competitor who started out doing things like trying to run the Ididerod. He did it. The Le Mans Race--he did that. He finished the Iron Man Triathalon. He's in his retirement been going after all these records and succeeding. He's also got a handful of sailing records. So balloon is his latest pursuit. I think he'll probably continue and try to break more records and maybe go around the world next year.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, some of the others--Richard Bronson, the British--the Virginaire billionaire--to what--what's the story on him? He's tried it three times, and his last one was what, about three or four weeks ago? His balloon blew away in Morocco.
HAMPTON SIDES: He was in Morocco, and the envelope, the inflated balloon, went off without the crew, which is really a bad thing, because you can't win this award, this prize, without having the crew on board. They found the balloon about a hundred miles away in the Atlas Mountains, and it was a very--you know--
JIM LEHRER: And he said he's going to do it again--he's going to try to do it better the next time--et cetera? For those of who are not as close to this as you are, explain to us why--all right--Fossett is now going to go back home, he said. He's going to get rested, and he's going to talk to his family, but he had that kind of feeling that he's going to try it again just like Bronson is. Why? What is the--what have they done once it's all said and done that they do, in fact, accomplish it?
HAMPTON SIDES: Right. I mean, mountaineers often say the reason that they climb a mountain is because it's there. You know, it's just some sort of feat, which has not been accomplished by any other person. I think in the case of ballooning you're dealing with a sport that is both incredibly high-tech but it's also--it's also an antique sport. It's the earliest form of aviation. It's over 200 years old. You think, you know, someone by now would have been able to do this, and yet, no one has been able to even really come close. The closest was Fossett's attempt last year, which only got him to a mustard field in the middle of nowhere in India, which is an amazing feat, but yet still a long way away from circumnavigating the planet. But I think the other thing that's, you know, involved here is just like Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. You know, there are just certain individuals who--they have to be first--and they will get there one way, shape or form, and they're just driven. It's a form of being driven that I don't think you or I could understand.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's going to be done some day?
HAMPTON SIDES: I think it will be. I think that the technology has been getting better and better and better. Everyone is taking notes on these failures that have cropped up. You know, the kind of envelope, the balloon that they're using now, everyone seems to agree, is probably the one that's going to do the trick. It's part helium and part hot air, so they're able to kind of compensate for the differences in altitude that happen between night and day, night and day. They're streamlining this thing, and it is just like working out a million different bugs without having an organization or an agency like NASA to back you up. I think they'll get it right probably by the end of the millennium, by the end of the century.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. How fast are they going up there when they're in their balloons?
HAMPTON SIDES: Well, you know, one of the reasons why all these different people have been going up this week and last week is because everyone is trying to take advantage of the winter jet stream, which is the most powerful and the most consistent winds that you can hope for. And they can get up to 200 miles an hour. Fossett, in his attempt just last week, was going at speeds approximately about 150 miles an hour and was able, we believe, to set a new record for crossing the Atlantic. So all these guys are trying to take advantage of these really powerful winds, which can take you around the world, although they're not as predictable or as consistent as, you know, a conveyor belt. Any number of eddies and different sorts of whirlpools can develop that can get you off course.
JIM LEHRER: Is it dangerous?
HAMPTON SIDES: It's extremely dangerous. I mean, apart from--well, what happened--I think it was two or three years ago in Belarus--where some balloonists were shot down by a government that he was either hostile or just ignorant of what was trying to--what the attempt was all about. They're--obviously capricious weather that can land these people very quickly--you worry about even things like an errant 747, or something like that.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
HAMPTON SIDES: You know, there's any number of things that can happen. Add to that in the case of Dick Furtan, who is taking off tomorrow from Albuquerque here, the fact that they're dealing with a pressurized capsule and when they get up to an altitude of 36,000 feet, if they were to lose pressure, they have to come down in a real hurry. It's a very dangerous situation. It's like being in an airplane and not knowing what to do next.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. You made your point that it's dangerous. Thank you very much.