If Steve Fossett's record is any indication, it's only a matter of time before he becomes
the first person to circle the globe non-stop in a hot-air balloon.
In January 1997, he broke the distance record for non-stop ballooning around the world
when he traveled 10,360 miles from St. Louis, Missouri before crash-landing in a field in
India. Undaunted, he continued to try, most recently in early August 1998. This time he launched from
Mendoza, Argentina; it was the first time any balloonist had attempted to secure this Holy
Grail among balloonists via the Southern Hemisphere.
Fossett left the South American coast behind on Friday, August 7th. By the 11th, he had
reached the shores of Africa, becoming the first balloonist ever to cross the South
Atlantic Ocean. He now had two new records under his belt, but he was after grander
stuff. He continued over the African continent and across the Indian Ocean to Australia.
With winds whipping him along at over 100 miles an hour, Fossett crossed Australia and
headed out into the southern Pacific, his spirits soaring.
That's just when his troubles began. A line of thunderstorms rose in his path across the
South Pacific. He tried to rise over them, but at nearly 30,000 feet, a violent downdraft
smashed into his balloon, the Solo Spirit. Severely damaged, it sank rapidly toward the sea
five and half miles below. Fossett crashed into the ocean 500 miles east of Australia.
He thought he was going to die. The balloon's propane burners started a fire in the
balloon's capsule, but somehow he managed to fight his way out through the capsule's
submerged hatch, dragging a life raft and emergency radio beacon with him. Several
hours later, a reconnaissance plane spotted him in the water, and a few hours after that
a private Australian sailboat picked him up.
Fossett had not secured the Holy Grail, but he had come closer to it than anyone ever has.
Indeed, he traveled half again as far as his last flight, floating fully 15,200 miles
around the Earth before coming down. His mission was over . . . for the time being.