(updated December 8, 1997)
Read comments, questions, and responses from the Virgin Global Challenger team, as
well as comments about this web site.
Regards the interview with Richard Branson in this Web site, date unknown, please be advised that this "weatherman" at no time indicated or
even hinted about a trajectory to Los Angeles. The launch forecast indicated a sharp turn to the northeast, over the mid and eastern Pacific with a projected landfall well to the north of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Hardly anywhere near Los Angeles. I agree that weather forecasting is not a particularly exact science, but mine was exact enough
to provide Richard two very successful flights, a transatlantic and a transpacific. I would have expected more.
I go to school at Roseburg Jr. Academy, and I think that flying a balloon
around the world is a real cool thing to do. Please can you write to my school
and tell us what you are doing daily. Thank you!! Tony Darling, Roseburg, Oregon
To Tony Darling - We wish we had time to write to everyone who has been so good to support our
project. We are so busy getting ready to go that we hope you understand that
we can't take our focus off of the flight. But we thank you for your good
wishes, and hope you will continue to follow the progress of our flight through
- From the Virgin Global Challenger Team
What kind of emergency equipment did the team have?
Did they have parachutes? What kind of cold weather gear did they have?
Thanks. Don Canaday, Charlotte, NC
Should the envelope have a catastrophic failure, all crew members have personal
parachutes plus bail-out oxygen systems. If the bail-out should occur over
water the crew will don immersion suits, life vests and a bail-out pack with a
one-man life raft. There is also an ELT (Emergency Location Transmitter) that
will transmit a coded message to the SARSAT satellites so that the identity and
position will be with the control center in under an hour. This ELT signal
will also be picked up by other aircraft within the line of sight distance.
They also have cold weather gear.
If the balloon would have to ditch, the envelope can be separated instantly
from the capsule by explosive bolts. The capsule is designed to float
horizontally and has flotation bags that will keep it stable in water. It is
completely watertight and also has marine band radios. Full scale flotation
trials were carried out using the mock-up capsule in Holyhead Harbour, courtesy
of ML Lifeguard. These trials show the capsule entering the water as predicted
and it remained stable in spite of a force 8 gale during the trials.
If your balloon is forced to land or has an accident do you have a
rescue party who watches your progress? Cheyenne Smith, Sumner, MI
Yes, there is a full search and rescue network around the world as well
as a recovery team.
How will you be able to fuel yourselves sufficiently (both the balloon
and your bodies) for as long as the trip lasts? Good luck on your quest!!!! Los Angeles, CA
Balloon: Surrounding the capsule are six fuel tanks containing propane
gas, which is used to power the balloon burners at night. Each fuel cylinder
weighs 935 kg each (2,060 lbs).
Bodies: Nigel Gifford and Brian Welsby of Herbalforce have developed special
ration packs for the three crew members according to their food preferences and
nutritional needs. There is enough food to last beyond the 12-21 day flight.
In addition, Alan Watson, a physiotherapist has developed a specialized
physical assessment and exercise routine for the crew.
My fifth grade class has been following this site since it began. We have
researched hot balloons and read your site carefully. We are eagerly waiting
for your launch date. Will we be able to communicate with the crew during the
flight? If so, when would we expect to view responses or receive e-mail? We
are very excited and wish you all the best of luck! Sharon Simon, Barboursville, WV
While we would like to communicate with all our friends around the world, we
have to limit our communication to the Control Center in London and with the
aviation authorities around the world. We hope you will keep tuning in to the
website for our progress.
Dear team. What is it like to travel the world from a balloon? What is it like
up in the air? Do you ever get scared of falling off the balloon? Does
balloon riding take you to everywhere in the world? Is ballooning a hobby or is
it your job?
We hope to let you know the answers to your first three questions after we make
it around the world. Regarding ballooning taking us to everywhere in the world
- it has taken us to some interesting places. Richard and Per crossed both the
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans together, and Rory has parachuted out of balloons.
Ballooning is Per's full-time job, and Richard and Rory enjoy it as one of
their many hobbies.
Well, I wish Richard and Per every success in their adventure. My brother,
Adrian Tucker, works for the Virgin Airship and Balloon Company in Telford, UK,
and he has had to drive to Morocco with the balloon capsule, I only hope they
get to take off this time!!! Caroline Tucker, Bournemouth UK
Erin Porter just saw your brother Adrian at the Control Center. He is
about to leave for China where he will be building an airship. He has been a
great jack-of-all-trades in the Control Center, where he was trying to get the
bugs worked out of our elaborate phone system. We appreciate all the work he's
been doing on the project!
Congratulations to Mr. Lindstrand on your record-setting flight! The NOVA
description stated that you pre-breathed pure oxygen for two hours prior to the
flight. Was the purpose of this to flush nitrogen from your body to prevent
decompression sickness (DCS) during the ascent? What precautions will be
necessary to prevent DCS in the event of rapid cabin depressurization on the
round-the-world flight? Ken Moss, Golden, CO
In Per Linstrand's write-up on his test flight, he states:
"...in order to avoid the bends at extended flights above 30,000 feet you need
to pre-breathe 100% oxygen for about 2 hours to denitrogenize the blood, (which
is an extremely boring 2 hours dressed up in too warm clothes)..."
In order to capture the jet stream the balloon must be able to sustain flight
at the 30,000 ft level. Human life could not exist at this level without
either breathing 100% oxygen or by creating a pressurized environment. While
breathing 100% oxygen through a mask will give you the required oxygenation of
the blood, other medical factors resulting from the lack of pressure in the
body bring great discomfort after 4-5 hours and hence this is not a practical
position for a long duration flight.
The only route feasible is to create a pressurized capsule and for this we have
two choices. We can either create a system like that of an airliner where air
is pumped into the cabin continuously, in this case from the compressor section
of the jet engine, and where pressure inside the cabin is regulated by an
outflow valve in its turn controlled by an aneroid. The alternative way would
be to use a closed system like that of a submarine or a spacecraft where the
oxygen in the cabin is re-circulated and cleaned through chemical scrubbers and
oxygen topped up through a liquid oxygen supply. The advantage of the latter
is less weight and complexity but much lower air quality. The advantage of the
former is a continuous supply of fresh air, however it is a highly complex
system and also requires an air pump of some form.
We have chosen the former route just as we did with the Atlantic and Pacific
crossings. We have to create our own air pump and we will do this by running a
propane powered piston engine on top of the capsule. This piston engine drives
a large supercharger, which is a CompAir screw compressor, and this compressor
(which consumes half the power of the engine) takes the air from the atmosphere
and pumps it under high pressure into the cabin. This is a continuous process
i.e. the engine and compressor are running all the time during flight. The
pressure inside the cabin is regulated by an aneroid driven outflow valve
(which came from an F16 aircraft). This valve will maintain an inside altitude
of 8,000 ft. at all times.
As the air coming out of the compressor is +165 degrees Centigrade, a series of
intercoolers are brought into use in order to provide air at the correct
temperature. The noise level immediately after the compressor is some 125 dB
necessitating some clever silencing technology to make this interior
The Virgin team believes that their balloon is the most sophisticated balloon
every built, but nevertheless it is a prototype aircraft that will try to fly
20,000 miles on its maiden flight. To expect that every system will work
flawlessly would be to display over-confidence and one must always provide a
safety backup in the event of a malfunction. Although most items have been
tested before the flight, the entire balloon cannot be tested as such until it
In the event of a depressurization, every crew member has an oxygen mask and an
oxygen supply for at least six hours. There is also a bail-out cylinder that
would allow a parachute escape from up to 40,000 feet.
(posted November 20, 1996)
How are you going to use the restroom?
How are you going to shower?
Thank you very much. Ricky, Gonzales, LA
There is an enclosed toilet on board and it is next to the sleeping compartment
in the lower level of the capsule. It operates much like an airline toilet.
The pilots have towlettes for "bathing."
Hello to the crew, I'm six years old and my dad just read about your adventure.
We are so excited about following with you and will be checking in each day.
My question is "how long will this trip take"? I have a wall map of the world
to watch your progress!
Good Luck! Jared Thomas, Morgan Hill, CA
Depending on the jet stream weather patterns, the flight will take anywhere
between 12 and 21 days.
I am a junior high school English teacher. My 7th grade classes have just
begun to read The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene DeBois. When we heard
you were making this flight our enthusiasm was instantaneous. This internet
connection is the only place we have seen any information about this flight.
Have you published articles? Done interviews? Are there other places my
students could find information about the three of you and your plans?
I see this as a unique opportunity to combine English instruction with math,
science, history and geography. Do you have any comments and/or suggestions
you can make to my classes?
Thank you for continuing to demonstrate that you CAN reach for the stars.
Sandra Koch, Alma, MI
Please stay tuned for our upcoming interviews of the crew members with more
"inside" information on the flight. In the meantime, the June issue of Outside
Magazine ran a story titled "Balloonatics" that might provide good reading
material. You can also log on to the official
web site of the Virgin Global Challenger. Our web site will periodically add
informational and educational material on subjects related to this
around-the-world balloon flight. If you'd like to be informed when new content
is added to the site, please add yourself to our listserv/mailing list and we'll be sure to let you know when to check back.
What provisions do you make for a chase party in case of a forced landing?
Ed Kinzer, Sarasota, FL
For more information on the search and rescue operation that will be conducted
in the event of a forced landing, please check back when we post our in-depth
interview with Project Director Michael Kendrick.
Correct me if I'm wrong but when you talk of the stresses of 200 mile per hour
winds on the fabric of the balloon you are dealing with a hypothetical
situation where the balloon goes from a situation of zero wind to that of 200
mph....not! I would have thought that for almost the entire voyage you would
experience zero "apparent" wind.
What happened to those balloons that had the upside-down balloons hanging
underneath? I thought they were the answer to long distance flight. Kerry
Fenn, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
You're right—the balloon will be travelling at the same speed as the wind or
air mass surrounding it. However, at lower altitudes, in the event that the
balloon hits a lightning storm, there could be gusts of wind that could cause
some stresses to the fabric. The projected 200 mph speeds that the balloon
might reach are actually "ground speeds" (i.e. relative to the ground).
The "upside-down balloon" you refer to was that of the Earthwinds Hilton
around-the-world balloon project that was an hourglass balloon configuration.
The upper balloon was filled with helium and the lower balloon was filled with
pressurized air to provide ballast. After several years of failed launch
attempts and a few short aborted flights, the project came to an end. The
information and data gathered from that complex experimental craft, however,
has been helpful to the current balloonists who are attempting to fly around
the world in their varying systems.
What is the farthest that a hot air balloon has ever flown? Cody & H.O.,
The world distance record for hot air ballooning is held by Per Lindstrand
& Richard Branson. Their balloon, Pacific Challenger, flew 6,700 miles in
46 hours. In this trans-Pacific flight they flew from Japan to Arctic
What date will the lift off be? I would like to keep posted to time and date.
I am a member of the Arizona Balloon Club and I think the members would like to
be informed of your journey.
Best of luck to you all. S. Debber, Phoenix, AZ
The weather will be the determining factor for the exact launch date.
Nonetheless, the project will be launch-ready as of December 1 and the weather
window lasts until March.
We would like to know if you wear parachutes in case something happens during
your flight. Thanks for answering this question. T. Helen's Class
While aloft, the pilots will have parachutes easily accessible. They will be
ready to put on the parachutes at any time. In their training sessions they
have practiced donning them in quick fashion.
(posted November 6, 1996)
How do you plan to deal with "local authorities" in the advent of an unscheduled landing? Need any ground crew? Best of luck!
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: Our Search and Rescue Coordinator has been setting up a network of agencies and individuals around the globe to assist in the event of an unscheduled landing. The project's recovery team will be "tracking" the balloon as well, and will be prepared to begin the recovery process at any time during the flight. They will make sure the crew's immediate needs are met, as well as getting the equipment secured and shipped back to England.
How are you going to control the direction of the balloon, since the direction is controlled by the winds in the jet stream? This is a question I would like answered. Thank you for consideration of this matter. Marvin George, Sierra Vista, AZ
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: The team will judge the altitude at which they should fly by talking to the meteorologists in London and they will also receive frequent updated wind and weather charts via their INMARSAT Datalink. If they wish to try and change course they can only hope to do so by changing their height and dropping out of the jet stream and finding local weather systems to push them in a new direction.
I recently took a very modest hot-air balloon ride. It was a relatively small balloon with half a dozen people riding in a basket. We were airborne only about 45 minutes when they had to land and change helium (I think) canisters. Presumably the idea with this project is to remain airborne for the entire trip. How can a far larger and heavier balloon circumnavigate the globe without being re-supplied with fuel along the way? How much fuel does it use per hour or per day? Tom Puchniak, Montreal, Quebec
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: The propane fuel is carried in six cylinders around the capsule. Each cylinder weighs 935 kg each, carrying 750 kg of liquid propane which is fed in vapor form to the two engines and in liquid form to the burner. This amount of fuel is in excess of the theoretical requirement, but surplus propane can be treated as ballast. Each cylinder can be jettisoned by an explosive bolt activated from inside the capsule. The amount of fuel used per hour or per day is subject to change depending on circumstances like weather.
Good luck this year to the Virgin team. This is the most exciting adventure that is not based on a powered craft I've ever seen. Great coverage on PBS also. My only concern was that safety precautions were minimized to the point it was not a viable project.
Hopefully that has been addressed through a year's delay. Have diplomatic issues been resolved for foreign air-space? God speed to your flight team. Burt Cheek, Lilburn , GA
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: We are currently in the process of applying for overflight permission from 97 countries and areas of special sovereignty that lie between 20 and 70 degrees north latitude. To date, we have received positive confirmation from 29 of those countries, including Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Nepal, which we believe will fall within the initial flight path of the balloon. With a target date of 1 December for launchreadiness, we feel confident that we will obtain the permissions necessary for the successful circumnavigation of the earth.
What frequencies will the balloons be using? It might be interesting for us shortwave listeners to listen in. Mike White, Eau Claire, WI
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: At this point, we do not plan to publish the frequencies that the balloons will be using.
I worked on the various missile sites in the midwest and the welders need special certifications and skill levels to weld pipe carrying helium. The flanges were specially made since helium is so hard to contain. How are you solving the leakage problems inherent with helium? Bob Regenos, Phoenix, AZ
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: Creating a helium envelope one and a half times as high as Nelsons Column, capable of retaining 1.1 m cu. ft. of helium and keeping it there for 3 weeks is a major operation never attempted before. The longest a gas balloon has been airborne so far is less than 6 days, and to triple the existing record has required the latest in fabric design and extreme attention to detail during manufacture.
The envelope uses a high tenacity polyester fabric as its main structural element. This is floated with a polyurethane compound creating a gas barrier and a block of u.v. light. This fabric on its own constitutes a perfectly adequate material for a normal gas balloon but not for one which is to stay airborne for 3 weeks.
The fabric for the Virgin Global Challenger has been developed specifically for this purpose only. In an ideal world, we would build the balloon and flight test it. However, it is not possible to fly the balloon prior to the actual record attempt as it is very unlikely that it will survive a landing without damage, and it is also associated with the very high cost when filling it with helium. Therefore, it is imperative that the envelope material is tested in conditions that simulate as nearly as possible the actual flight.
One factor in the testing is that this balloon will fly at altitudes and temperatures that no other fabric balloon has ever flow in and it will also be exposed to the violence of the jet stream and accelerated into speeds in excess of 200 knots. Needless to say, this will put immense strain on the fabric. The INSTRON machine has an environmental chamber that can bring the fabric under test from 70 degrees C to +330 degrees C. The tensile jaws are driven by a computer and so it is therefore possible to simulate 2 weeks of flight in the jet stream at the correct temperatures and fabric stresses in our lab at Oswestry.
We believe that this is the first time such testing facilities have been available for balloon manufacture and it is producing invaluable data for us. After making sure that the balloon fabric has the right mechanical strength, the next item to test is porosity for helium. This has historically been very difficult due to the size and neutral properties of the helium atom. We sought out the best minds in mass spectrometry and commissioned VASECO to purpose build a helium sniffer which we later used to test the porosity of every seam. The Vaseco helium sniffer can complete a porosity test of a one meter-long seam in about 10 seconds. For comparison purposes, the traditional diffusion test takes at least 3 hours.
I believe that your program about around the world balloon flights mentioned that one of the crew members had a hang glider altitude record. I was involved with a 1982 record hang glider flight by John Bird shown in the 1987 Guinness Book of Records (the last one I have) at 39,000 feet (the book indicates it was made with a hot air balloon - in fact it was a helium balloon). I wasn't aware that this record had been exceeded and would be interested in the details. Steve Hindmarch, Vancouver, BC
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: On June 19, 1984, Rory McCarthy attached his hang glider to a hot air balloon, piloted by Per Lindstrand, and ascended to an altitude of 36,700 feet before releasing. In doing so, Rory claimed the World Hang Gliding Altitude Record, a record that remained unbroken for 10 years. Judy Leden set a new World Record of 38,000 feet in 1995. On September 18, 1986, Rory set a new Civilian Sky Diving Altitude Record, jumping from a hot air balloon, again piloted by Per Lindstrand, from an altitude of 35,600 feet.
I am a meteorologist working for the National Weather Service at the Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland, Or. We watch the jet stream flow across the Pacific looking for jet pulses that generate rain storms affecting the Northwest United States. Our favorite part of these jet pulses are the forward left quadrant and right rear quadrant, where the greatest vertical lift...highest depth of clouds and all the rain occurs. With any luck, you'll get to ride one of these beasties at 200 knots plus across the Pacific. I wish I could ride with! What a learning experience...
Second best would be to track you guys as you make your way across the Pacific. Are you going to send out Pilot Reports (PIREPS)? Is anyone planning on putting out a homepage showing your PIREP on a geographical chart (With Lat/Lon). If not would you like me to pursue this with my colleagues? Something like this would be educational for local schools, and frankly would be very useful for local operations.
Observations at altitude are kind of scarce out in the Pacific. Anything we could get would be used. We'd sure love to hear from you guys, on the way across if you have the time. Anything you see out the window (i.e. clouds), and measurements such as outside air temperature, wind velocity etc we could use. Joel Lanier, Vancouver, WA
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: The pilots will be filing position reports on a regular basis. We will update the information on a regular basis, including last know location of the balloon, milestones, crew condition, etc.
As far as meteorological data, the crew will be measuring that to some degree. However, we cannot guarantee that they will be in a position to provide customized weather information.
Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand did get to ride one of those "beasties" you mentioned in their flight across the Pacific in January 1991: the balloon averaged 127 knots from take off to landing and in the middle of the Pacific it sustained a speed of over 200 knots for several hours.
I was intrigued by the air of desperate competition in the treatment of the Balloon episode. This was particularly palpable in the Virgin team, as evidenced by their plan to try and launch even though they had not done adequate testing or training for the satisfaction of the flight team members (i.e. Rory). As an engineer and a businessman, I was shocked by Richard's incredible drive to launch, even if it meant serious risk to the project and to his life. I am also a rock climber, so I am aware of the thrill of victory - the incredible feeling of accomplishment of climbing a route that has not been done before - which seems to be driving Richard. Still I was wondering, have the Virgin team now addressed the training and testing concerns that Rory had last year? I am also interested in the resolution of the financial issues between Per's company and the Virgin Project. Any updates forthcoming? Mike Leclere, Roseville, CA
Erin Porter, Virgin Global Challenger: The postponement of the project has allowed time for some equipment update and for a Test Flight Program using a number of smaller balloons built for that purpose during 1995. In particular, it allowed time to build a back up envelope, and the team took the opportunity to increase the envelope size from 900,000 cubic feet to 1.1 million cubic feet, which should give an increased altitude capability and the ability to take on board more fuel. The flight testing program will continue right up to launch in Marrakech and in order to do so, due to the European weather being unsuitable in October/November, the program has now been moved to the deserts of Nevada.
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