"Danger in the Jet Stream"
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA. Peril at 30,000 feet.
MAN: Are you scared?
STEVE FOSSETT: I just decided an hour ago to proceed across the Atlantic, so it's a go.
ANNOUNCER: A balloon race becomes a brush with death, and skill, stamina, and science are the key to survival.
STEVE FOSSETT: I don't think I'm willing to risk going into Libyan airspace.
LOU BALLONES: Turbulence might be more than just a scare factor. It just might slam him into a mountain.
ANNOUNCER: Climb on board for "Danger in the Jetstream."
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television. And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.
NARRATOR: January, 1997. Three teams risk their lives in one of the last remaining aeronautical challenges: to fly non-stop around the world by balloon. An adventure that tests scientific ingenuity and individual bravery to the point of obsession. The chairman of the Virgin airline and entertainment empire, Richard Branson, is a man used to the limelight. He leads the British team which plans to take off from Morocco.
RICHARD BRANSON: I don't think there's any adventure that I could do in my lifetime that could top this. I mean, it must be one of the ultimate challenges left to mankind, but we don't want to over-exaggerate.
NARRATOR: Branson may be the most flamboyant member of his team, but the inspiration comes from Swedish-born balloon builder, Per Lindstrand.
PER LINDSTRAND: The known dangers we can handle. I mean, we have equipment for that. But, the unknown one—like the severe weather—we can't. We can't steer away like an airline; it can divert. We can't do that.
NARRATOR: A former pilot in the Swedish Air Force, Lindstrand was in Morocco with Branson twelve months earlier when they failed to get off the ground. This time, they have an even bigger balloon. The third team member is one of the engineers. Alex Ritchie has helped build all Richard Branson's record-attempting balloons, but this is the first time he will fly. Branson and Lindstrand are a seasoned partnership. In gigantic hot air balloons, they've flown the Atlantic and the Pacific, but not without problems. They came close to losing their lives on both attempts, but lived to tell a record-breaking tale. Lindstrand knows that extreme balloon flights are fraught with uncertainty. A circumnavigation will push technology to the limits. Even pin-pricks in the giant balloon can reduce the chances of making it around the world. The balloon, built in England by the Lindstrand Balloon factory is the largest balloon of its type ever built. Lindstrand has chosen a sophisticated aircraft-style pressurized capsule. On the outside, six tanks, weighing a ton each, will be filled with propane gas to fuel burners and power two on-board engines that will compress the thin air at altitude to keep the balloonists alive. With such a heavy payload, a balloon of this size has never flown before. No one really knows how it will behave. They'll soon find out. They're just waiting for the right winds at their launch site in Marrakech, to take off. Psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard leads the Swiss team. The co-pilot is Belgian balloonist Wim Verstraeten. They've raised two million from Swiss watch manufacturer Breitling to make the attempt. Bertrand Piccard comes from an extraordinary family. His grandfather, August, was the first man to enter the stratosphere in 1931. His father Jacques has dived deeper than any man in history.
BERTRAND PICCARD: In my family, I had always the example of people making scientific adventures. My grandfather and my father, but also all the people that I met when I was a child. All these people gave me the taste of adventure, of science, of exploration, and I was deeply impressed by that when I was a child.
NARRATOR: The other teams plan to fly with heavy tanks of propane gas. But the Swiss engineers have opted for a yet-untested system that uses kerosene to fuel the burners. A liquid at normal temperatures, kerosene can be contained in lightweight rubber bags stowed both outside and inside their capsule. The Breitling Orbiter is being built by Cameron Balloons in England. Piccard has brought his daughter Monique here to check on progress. To save even more weight, Piccard and Verstraeten are using an advanced super-lightweight carbon fibre gondola. Using a system similar to the Space Shuttle, the crew will breathe air that's re-circulated, chemically scrubbed, and mixed with on-board oxygen. With less weight to carry, the Breitling balloon is much smaller than the Virgin craft, and the crew hopes, easier to control. The most courageous—or foolhardy—of the teams is due to take off from the Busch Baseball Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Chicago businessman Steve Fossett is spending $300,000 of his own money on the cheapest and simplest of the challenges. He plans to go solo, flying alone for up to three weeks. Remarkably, Steve Fossett hadn't stepped into a balloon until 1993.
STEVE FOSSETT: I deliberately entered the sport of ballooning for the purpose of trying to be the first person to fly around the world by balloon.
NARRATOR: In 1995, Fossett made his first attempt. Taking off from the old Olympic Stadium in South Korea, he flew for three days, landing in Canada in the longest-distance balloon flight in history. The next year, he tried again. He launched from South Dakota, but the outer skin of his balloon tore to shreds. He never managed to leave the North American continent.
STEVE FOSSETT: This is very disappointing and embarrassing, and I didn't come anywhere close to making it around the world.
NARRATOR: Fossett is forced to fly at a lower altitude than the other challengers because his tiny capsule is unpressurized. The pressure inside and outside the capsule is always the same.
STEVE FOSSETT: I want to fly in an unpressurized capsule. I decided that, well, I better physically prepare myself for this, and just as a mountain climber would, I sought to acclimatize. So, I had this personal capsule in my home, and I was able to sleep in it, and I could set the altitude to 12,000, 15,000, or 18,000 feet. I don't think anyone has needed to take on acclimatization in preparation for a balloon flight. People like balloons. They're interesting, they're pretty. But, there's also a romance associated with around-the-world flight, and this harkens back to a different age, a 19th Century-type of exploration situation.
NARRATOR: All the global challengers have balloons that share a common design. It's called a Rozier, after the Frenchman who invented it in the early days of ballooning. It was in Paris in 1783 that Pilatre de Rozier took off in a crude hot air balloon made of paper. It flew for half an hour. The principle was simple: Hot air rises. That's because it's less dense than the surrounding colder air. Trap the hot air in a bag, make it carry a load, and you have a basic hot air balloon. Early hot air balloons couldn't stay up for long. The weight of fuel to keep the air hot was the problem. A newly-discovered lighter-than-air gas, hydrogen, seemed to offer a solution. It could take a balloon up without being heated. Two years after his historic first flight, de Rozier invented a balloon that he hoped would make long-distance flight possible. It combined the new hydrogen gas with hot air. The hot air would heat the hydrogen, causing it to expand, and making it lighter still, to give the balloon even more lifting power. In his new balloon, de Rozier tried to fly the English Channel. Sparks from his on-board heater ignited the hydrogen. It exploded. The first man to fly was also the first to die in an air accident. The modern version of de Rozier's balloon has one important difference. Inert helium gas—unknown in the 18th Century—replaces the hydrogen. Underneath a sphere of helium, burners heat a cone of hot air. The hot air applies gentle heating to the helium, making it less dense and increasing its lifting power. At 1.1 million cubic feet, the Virgin Global Challenger is the largest Rozier balloon ever built. The Breitling Orbiter balloon is just half the size, at 500,000 cubic feet, with Fossett's balloon just a quarter the volume of Virgin's. Making it around the world in a balloon is both technically and physically challenging. The race will take three weeks. All three balloons need to catch the fastest air currents, that for a few short weeks in mid-winter, girdle the earth. These winds, called jet streams, are great rivers of air hundreds of miles wide at 20,000 to 40,000 feet. Fossett's balloon will be flying lower, just beneath the jet stream. The Virgin team has chosen to take off from Morocco to catch the sub-tropical jet stream that sweeps east across North Africa. The crew arrive at the launch site with high hopes. Marrakesh is usually directly under the sub-tropical jet stream, which can reach speeds up to 250 miles per hour. At the moment, the jet streams are strong but running hundreds of miles southwest of Morocco.
RICHARD BRANSON: We'll have very good conditions, we think, tomorrow morning for take-off. We're not going to have very fast conditions the first day actually into the jet. But then, once we're in the jet, we think we can get tucked in there and stay there, really, the whole way to the Pacific.
NARRATOR: The Moroccans turned up in style to see the balloon off. But, engineer Alex Ritchie is impatient to get off the ground.
ALEX RITCHIE: Very happy to see you all just fading away beneath me there.
NARRATOR: Making a careful choice about the time of launch is crucial if they are to be swept southeast at just the right moment to catch the jet stream. Inserting the balloon into the jet can be fraught with danger. These fast winds could shear the balloon apart. Rozier balloons have natural float altitudes, the height at which they will stop rising. That is where the lifting force of the helium filling the balloon is balanced by the weight of the balloon and capsule. The balloon should stay at this height until the temperature drops at night and the helium begins to cool and loose its lift. The Virgin balloon is designed to float at 30,000 feet. As the balloon rises into thinner air, the helium will expand until the balloon is fully inflated. Any excess helium then spills down long fabric safety tubes. The balloon needs to be big. It must hold enough helium to counterbalance the weight of three men, six tons of fuel, and an aluminum capsule filled with sophisticated navigation and communication equipment.
LINDSTRAND ENGINEERS: Let's go. Let's go.
NARRATOR: The final launch preparations are completed in a hurry so the countdown can begin.
LINDSTRAND ENGINEER: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
NARRATOR: The launch is clean and the balloon rises easily to altitude.
RICHARD BRANSON: We settled down at 29,750 feet, exactly what we'd been told we would do. We headed off over the Atlas Mountains.
NARRATOR: Balloons go where the wind takes them. They can't be steered in any conventional sense. But, prevailing winds vary in speed and direction at different heights. By changing your altitude, you can, to some degree, influence where you go. By using their on-board burners, the team members can heat the helium, causing the balloon to climb. They also carry lead, water, and extra propane as ballast. Throwing it out reduces weight and lets the balloon climb. It's not an exact science. Early in the flight, they learn that the ground crew failed to unlock the safety catches, or couplings, on the capsule's propane fuel tanks. Engineer Alex Ritchie realizes this is a crucial error.
ALEX RITCHIE: Each tank is connected to the capsule by two fuel hoses. There's a quick disconnect coupling in each of those hoses, which is designed to break free when the tank is released. The locking mechanism should be released shortly before take-off. Clearly, that didn't actually happen.
NARRATOR: The tanks serve a dual function. They contain pressurized propane gas as fuel for the burners, but they also act as emergency ballast. Weighing a ton each, they can be dropped quickly. With the safety couplings on, that's not possible.
PER LINDSTRAND: The ultimate implication, when you can't release the couplings, is that you won't have enough releasable ballast. In case of a dramatic descent, you will hit the ground.
NARRATOR: Despite the problems with the tanks, the flight is going well. The balloon has been at 30,000 feet for three and a half hours. Meanwhile, the exhausted launch team flies back to the project control center in London. All long-distance balloon flights need backup. The ground crew in London clears the way ahead.
KEVIN (GROUND CREW): Could you call him as a matter of urgency, please, and see what assistance he could give, if any.
NARRATOR: The control center confirms over-flight permissions. They give the pilots weather reports and technical advice. And, should the balloonists get into trouble, they alert search and rescue services.
RICHARD BRANSON: It's beginning to get dark. We're soon to leave Morocco and head over Algeria. Losing altitude quite fast. Trying to sort of calculate how much heat to safely put in the envelope.
NARRATOR: During the day, the balloon stayed up without using the burners. As night approaches and the sun goes down, the helium cools and the balloon begins to fall. To counteract this, Lindstrand plans to burn fuel to warm the helium, or at least, that's the theory.
RICHARD BRANSON: Just as it started getting dark, we going down at an incredibly rapid rate. We didn't have the fuel tank to release, which would stop us from plummeting downwards.
ALEX RITCHIE: Seventeen thousand. Twenty-one knots. We're losing speed.
NARRATOR: Lindstrand is burning as hard as he can to warm the helium, but the balloon is falling rapidly. Calculations, based on the performances of smaller test balloons, are proving wildly misleading. They need to drop a fuel tank to stop the fall, but they can't. The safety couplings are still on.
ALEX RITCHIE: It's going to be sunset in not very long. That sun is just above the horizon.
PER LINDSTRAND: Remember, this balloon is incredibly big. The size of the balloon was obviously causing big problems.
ALEX RITCHIE: As our descent increased, we got into a more serious situation.
PER LINDSTRAND: The rate of climb indicator just didn't want to stop. The balloon started doing a couple of death dives. At that point, we could not obviously drop the fuel tanks. The only thing we could drop was ballast.
NARRATOR: First it was water and lead shot, then anything they could grab to save their lives.
RICHARD BRANSON: Alex! Alex! Alex! Alex was just standing down in the hatch just passing up the boxes and they were just hurtling them out. Still going down. Still going down.
ALEX RITCHIE: I passed boxes of water up to Richard. The top door was open. He heaved out the top door. . .
RICHARD BRANSON: . . . a fair amount of food, all the oil, and really, just anything we could lay our hands on, and we were still descending.
ALEX RITCHIE: And we must have moved three quarters of a ton.
PER LINDSTRAND: Tumbling down towards the desert floor in pitch black in the Atlas Mountains is not my idea of fun.
NARRATOR: At last the balloon stops falling and they climb slightly. But then, as the helium cools even further, they start to descend once more.
ALEX RITCHIE: Per decided that a tank had to go and that it was imperative, of course, to make sure the tank would come free when he pressed the button.
NARRATOR: As an engineer, Alex Ritchie knew the balloon in detail. He now climbed out onto the roof of the capsule to unlock the safety latches and release the tanks.
RICHARD BRANSON: We had about three minutes to get the couplings off. Neither myself nor Per, I think, could have got those couplings off in three minutes.
ALEX RITCHIE: It was dark out there, so I wasn't able to see the ground. It was just a black void, and maybe that was a good thing. Per pressed the button, and the cutter fired perfectly, and I actually saw the tank fall away.
NARRATOR: Twice the balloon was within a minute of crashing into the ground. At one point, they were less than a thousand feet from the desert floor. The ordeal is starting to take its toll. Virgin's control center in London is tracking the capsule's height and position via satellite. They become increasingly alarmed.
DAVID PARTRIDGE: It's just shot up from five thousand feet up to eleven thousand.
RICHARD BRANSON: I'm afraid we've had to dump all ballast, including all our water supplies, food supplies, oil, into the desert to avoid a crash landing. You know, I was asking myself, 'What on earth am I doing up here again?' I was saying to myself, "If I get out of this, for God's sake, don't do it again."
NARRATOR: With their supplies gone and the balloon hard to control, Per decides to end the flight.
KEVIN EDMONDS: There's a possibility of a rough landing, and we do have 3,000 kilos of propane on board.
CONTROL: KENDRICK: The pilots have just informed us that they've crossed the Ridge Mountains and they've begun a decent for a landing.
ALEX RITCHIE: It would be good to get down fairly soon. There are some power lines some considerable distance ahead, maybe a mile.
NARRATOR: Alex watches for obstacles as Per tries to set the balloon down as gently as possible.
ALEX RITCHIE: When it was apparent that we were going to be on the ground within four or five or six seconds, I came back down again and strapped myself into my seat. Obviously anticipating a blow. You don't know how severe it's going to be.
NARRATOR: As soon as the capsule lands, Per releases the balloon. Free of its payload, it shoots into the air.
RICHARD BRANSON: Keep it there, keep it there. Wow! Brilliant! Wow!
PER LINDSTRAND: Look at how it behaves, exactly how it behaves. It slits up, turns upside down, and comes straight down.
ALEX RITCHIE: Once the envelope is cut away, it very rapidly inverts, which allows the helium to spill out. The bladder, the diaphragm, which is between the helium part and the hot air part, ruptures, so very soon, it deflates and comes down. And it, in fact, landed only about a hundred yards from where we were.
PER LINDSTRAND: Got away with it again, didn't we?
ALEX RITCHIE: The absolute relief! It's almost explosive. Then you look around; you notice how quiet everything is. We had a perfect landing and everything is secure, and we're all perfectly fit. OK. I just tried to phone Mum, but it was engaged, as it always is. If I don't get a chance. . . Pardon? She's on the phone to the press! I see!
NARRATOR: The Virgin Global Challenger team had flown for twenty hours and covered barely four hundred miles. In the world's largest Rozier balloon, they had been lucky to escape with their lives. The Brietling Orbiter crew is preparing to leave at dawn, launching close to home—in the Swiss Alps. First, they will ride gentle winds that flow south to get to the fast winds over Africa. They plan to catch the same sub-tropical jet stream the Virgin team intended to take. Regular satellite images of the earth reveal wind speed and direction at all altitudes. With this information, meteorologists can forecast two days ahead where the prevailing winds will flow.
BERTRAND PICCARD: The weather conditions were exactly what we were waiting for. It means completely calm on the ground, north winds going to North Africa about a hundred kilometers per hour, then a nice jet stream above North Africa going north of the Himalayas.
WIN VERSTRAETEN: It's like astronauts for the first time going to the moon. We were the first time trying to get around the world with a balloon.
BERTRAND PICCARD: I think we have a good team. I think also that we should have had a few hours more for all the checking and for a few other things, but it's like this. My little daughter. Bonjour. Merci, mon amour. Merci, mon trésor.
NARRATOR: It is a critical moment. A slow lift-off because of temperature inversion, it is spectacular nonetheless.
DON CAMERON: Yes. Thank you to Wim. We think that the extreme inversion probably means that you're a little heavy for it, so you need to lose some ballast if possible. If not, you must burn.
MAN: Start climbing. Actually, it's about one and a half to two meters per second.
WIM VERSTRAETEN: The church bells were ringing all the time, and taking off at that moment was some part of heaven. Very special!
DON CAMERON: Let's hope that it takes some heat from the sun now.
VOICE ON RADIO: Well, it takes a lot of heat now. It's fine.
BERTRAND PICCARD: I just have a few pictures in my head: the Mont Blanc, the mountains of Chateau D'Oex with the Swiss Alps. It was great, but we were so busy.
NARRATOR: Unknown to the pilots, as their balloon struggles to clear the highest Alpine peaks, disaster is about to strike. In a bizarre echo of the problems on the Virgin flight, the Breitling ground crew has failed to tighten one tiny clip. It attaches a fuel hose to a kerosene tank inside the capsule. As they climb, the air pressure decreases, and liquid kerosene oozes onto the floor.
BERTRAND PICCARD: We saw some liquid leaking on the both corners of the gondola, and in the beginning, we thought it was only some snow melting, and when we looked at it from closer, we saw it was kerosene.
WIM VERSTRAETEN: Bertrand and I were very, very, very frightened and surprised.
BERTRAND PICCARD: The kerosene fumes burned our eyes, burned the throat. We started to take all the hatches out from the floor and saw there was kerosene everywhere. We couldn't fix the leak because we didn't know where exactly the problem was.
NARRATOR: Kerosene continued to pour onto the floor of the gondola. After three hours, Piccard and Verstraeten were choking on the fumes. They decide to ditch in the Mediterranean.
MONIKA PIEREN: They are around one thousand meters above sea level, and landing is foreseen within the next fifteen to thirty minutes.
NARRATOR: In Geneva, the ground crew is coordinating all communications with the stricken balloon. Representing Cameron Balloons, who had built both the Breitling and the Fossett craft, was Alan Noble.
ALAN NOBLE: After more than a year's work and after a brilliant launch, to feel that the whole thing was going to rags so quickly. . .
MONIKA PIEREN: He says, "We are ready for ditching. Please tell everyone that all seems to be really OK. I don't say that to reassure anyone; it is true."
BERTRAND PICCARD: We stabilized a few meters above the surface of the sea. We ditched between a helicopter of the coast guard, the airplane of the French army.
ALAN NOBLE: Thirty kilometers southeast of Montpelier, and they said that they landed at 14: 03.
BERTRAND PICCARD: When we saw the balloon in the water, we said, well, it's really a very big waste.
NARRATOR: Piccard and Verstraeten's attempt ends in just six hours. Their balloon is a write-off.
REPORTER: Two out of two failures is a pretty bad record. Isn't it time we called a halt to this very expensive game before someone gets badly hurt?
ALAN NOBLE: Well, so far, nobody's been hurt at all.
NARRATOR: There is only one challenger left in the race. Steve Fossett is completing his final preparations for an early evening launch. Fossett's take-off site is sub-zero Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis.
STEVE FOSSETT: Actually, when I walked out on the field and see how well organized my team has all of this, that actually I get a great deal of confidence that this is all going to work out.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: He has this really valuable quality, which is that he can sit in a cold, dark box for weeks on end and be happy. He does this for fun.
STEVE FOSSETT: We've got a fair amount of wind at the top of the stadium. Looks like maybe ten knots of wind, but that's really close to our limits. We had forecast substantially less, so we're going to hold out a half hour or two, an hour and a half, to see whether we can get a wind more like five knots, to make a prettier launch.
NARRATOR: Working from his home, a key member of Fossett's team is meteorologist Lou Ballones. He's been running a series of flight path projections based on satellite data.
LOU BALLONES: We have quite an extensive telecommunications array to help us with this project. A meteorologist can get nearly any type of meteorological data that they need right into their home in order to support balloon operations halfway around the world.
RICHARD BRANSON: Ballones has found winds that can carry Fossett straight out into the Atlantic. But he's also spotted a problem. The winds ahead fork in two directions, with the strength of the safer northerly track beginning to wane.
STEVE FOSSETT: The southern route had more political problems: Libya, Iraq, Iran, on to Afghanistan and China. Northern route wasn't a free ride, because I still had to deal with Russia, and Russia was reticent to give approval.
NICK SAUM: I want to move this balloon over that way.
NARRATOR: Days after his own global attempt, Richard Branson comes to see the launch. He's never met Steve Fossett. In fact, Branson isn't sure what Fossett looks like.
STEVE FOSSETT: Richard!
RICHARD BRANSON: Hi. How are you?
STEVE FOSSETT: So, yeah. Getting ready to go.
RICHARD BRANSON: What an adventure he's going to have in that.
STEVE FOSSETT: Yes. I am Steve Fossett.
RICHARD BRANSON: Oh, you are Steve! Sorry! You're a braver man than I, is all I can say.
NARRATOR: The wind drops slightly. With two tons of propane gas and open burners, a miscalculation could mean that the balloon might not clear the stadium.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: It's going to hit the stadium.
STEVE FOSSETT: I'm not sure how dangerous my equipment is from the explosion standpoint. Obviously, it's a lot of propane, but it is very well contained in these cylinders.
NARRATOR: Any further delay, and their weather window will be lost.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: That way.
NICK SAUM: We need to get that rope undone right there. Little more. OK. Let's have weight on and hold the balloon down.
NARRATOR: Fossett climbs to 18,000 feet, to catch fifty mile an hour winds to carry him across the country and out into the Atlantic. He breathes oxygen because he's on his own, and it is a real physical effort to keep the balloon up. Fossett works the burners, forcing the balloon to climb into the cold, thin air.
STEVE FOSSETT: This is really exactly as forecast, and I'm on track to go out over the Atlantic from North Carolina. . .
NARRATOR: One of Fossett's heaters failed, and he spent the first night at minus thirty degrees trying to fix it. There was no chance of sleep. Air Traffic Control and every passing aircraft wanted to chat.
PASSING AIRCRAFT: So, Steve, are you there by yourself?
STEVE FOSSETT: Well, yes. This is a solo flight.
MAN: Are you scared?
STEVE FOSSETT: No. I mean, it's a big decision. I just decided an hour ago to proceed across the Atlantic, so it's a go!
NARRATOR: Snowstorms close in on Fossett's control center in downtown Chicago.
FRANK HARTMANN: We are still over land, but we are only roughly. . .
BO KEMPER: . . .he'll be foraying outside into the Atlantic Ocean.
FRANK HARTMANN: Twenty miles west of the eastern coast.
BO KEMPER: He's going for the coast of Europe.
NICK SAUM: Ground speed: 65 knots. Hot damn! Love it!
NARRATOR: The entire control team are volunteers. Gas balloonists Bruce Comstock and Nick Saum have half a century of flying experience between them. Bo Kemper is Project Manager, handling over-flight permissions.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: If this were a space shot, NASA would be saying everything's going great.
NARRATOR: In Nebraska, Ballones continues to track the balloon via the world-wide Inmarset satellite system. Although Fossett can use voice communications, he prefers to stay in touch using e-mail. Transmitted by radio and then telephone line to Chicago and Omaha, it uses up very little of his limited on-board battery power.
STEVE FOSSETT: You're up there alone, and there's no voices, and you're flying, and pretty soon, these communications that you're having almost have a voice of their own, and you can almost imagine the sound of the voice of the person who's sending you the message. They become very real, very animated messages.
NICK SAUM: He's not chatty at all. He sits up there and eats his M&Ms and reads War and Peace and presses on.
NARRATOR: Fossett is carrying the world's first auto-pilot for a balloon. In essence, it's a computer program that uses changes in altimeter readings to switch the burners on and off, keeping the balloon in level flight. It was designed by Bruce Comstock to let Fossett catch some sleep.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: You can actually set this auto-pilot to fly a Rozier within the required limits for instrument flight, and I don't think a lot of human beings can do that for hours on end, and this will do it forever.
STEVE FOSSETT: What it does is it fires the burners in a sequence determined by computer algorithms to maintain the level flight of the balloon. If I want to change the altitude of the balloon, I will get on the burners myself and change the altitude and then reset the auto-pilot to keep it level.
NICK SAUM: Steve took off over here in St. Louis, came on down across the Appalachians, the Piedmonts, on out. He went across Bermuda early this morning in the dark, but he went dead across it.
NARRATOR: The control team can see from Fossett's e-mails that he is using too much propane and should be dumping more ballast. Fossett has chosen to fly higher and faster to get to the mid-Atlantic before the northerly winds disappear. But he is wasting precious fuel, reducing his chances of making it around the world.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: It only takes being a little bit too heavy—just a little bit too heavy—to really run the fuel consumption up. I bet my bottom dollar that he's heating at mid-day, and if he's heating at mid-day, he needs to look around that capsule and start pitching stuff out the hatch.
NARRATOR: Despite his efforts, Fossett arrives at the mid-Atlantic fork too late. He has missed the northern track. The winds now pull him south, heading toward a band of potentially hostile countries.
BO KEMPER: Do you have any telephone number for ATC in Libya?
MAN ON PHONE: I don't want to touch Libya. I mean, I can't.
BO KEMPER: No. I know that.
MAN ON PHONE: Let me just explain to you what the official US policy on Americans in Libya is. It's not legal currently for an American citizen to use. . .
NARRATOR: The team gets nowhere through official channels. But, there is a brotherhood of balloonists. Kemper turns to Branson for help. He knows that the Virgin balloon had been granted permission to overfly Libya.
BO KEMPER: I could use your help on Libya.
RICHARD BRANSON: Right. Is there any communication at all between America and Libya at the moment?
BO KEMPER: The President, I'm sure, and the US Government doesn't want to dance with Qadhafi.
RICHARD BRANSON: What time will they cross Libya?
MIKE KENDRICK: They're going to be there at. . .
RICHARD BRANSON: If we can explain to Colonel Qadhafi the spirit that Steve is doing this voyage, then he may give him permission to come through. I know Steve is extremely worried about flying over it if he doesn't get permission.
NARRATOR: Fossett had already flown the Pacific in 1995, so by crossing the Atlantic now, he became the first balloonist ever to fly both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans solo.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: This is ninety degrees west, and over here, right about here is zero. That's a quarter of the way. So, Steve's in here somewhere, so he almost can't avoid the first quarter.
NARRATOR: A detour around Libya will cost Fossett a lot. Using his emergency satellite phone, he gives Branson a call.
STEVE FOSSETT: I feel well. I don't exactly know how I'm going to solve these problems.
RICHARD BRANSON: OK. Well, we're in discussions with the Libyans. We have now formally requested permission for you to cross over, and we've asked for a response by 2: 30 today.
NARRATOR: It is another fifteen hours before they receive an answer. Libya denies permission to overfly.
NICK SAUM: Richard Branson has just done a lot of work real hard trying to get that, and it didn't work. So, that's the way it goes.
NARRATOR: On his present track, Fossett is due to pass through Algeria, Niger, and Chad, and then enter Libya.
STEVE FOSSETT: So, now I'm in central Algeria, flying south at 24,000 feet, and I don't think I'm willing to risk going into Libyan airspace and be forced to land short, and I'm told that Chad's a tough place to land, not only because of the terrain, but also, there's land mines, presumably not many roads. There's no roads anywhere. I haven't seen a road in hours of flying.
NARRATOR: In Chicago and Omaha, the team is worried. Lou Ballones has been running computer projections based on wind strength and direction reports received from satellite. He has spotted winds at ten to 18,000 feet that just might allow the balloon to miss Libya completely.
NICK SAUM: It's going to be complicated and it's going to involve Lou to a great extent. Lou's going to have to fly the balloon and just tell Steve, "OK. Go up. Go down."
NARRATOR: Fossett will have to fly low and slow to avoid Libya, at times venting off some of his helium during the day and burning fuel to stay steady at precise altitudes. He will waste time and resources, further diminishing his chances of getting around the world.
LOU BALLONES: If the forecast is correct and we have high confidence in it, it's going to take him right underneath Libya, and then we're going to climb him back up to 24,000 feet, and that's going to scoot him on through Saudi Arabia and eventually, India-Pakistan area. And then, once out in here, we have to recompute where he's going.
NARRATOR: Fossett's speed drops to just thirty miles an hour, but his meteorologist predictions are correct. As he skirts Libya, he breaks his own world distance record of 5,436 miles. Then, out of the blue, the Libyans contact Branson. They've had a change of heart.
NICK SAUM: We officially have permission from Libya.
LOU BALLONES: Excellent!
NICK SAUM: Libya has gone public and said, "Yeah. We're giving him permission."
LOU BALLONES: OK.
NICK SAUM: And so, we're going to go with that.
STEVE FOSSETT: We'd just about given up hope on getting permission from Libya, but now, permission has been granted, and I'm flying fast.
NARRATOR: Fossett changes his strategy. He burns, and climbs to 27,000 feet. For the first time, his balloon enters the lower part of the jet stream. He's flying much higher than he had ever planned. His ground speed rises above one hundred miles per hour.
STEVE FOSSETT: I've just entered Libyan airspace. I'm in the jet stream travelling between 105 and 111 knots, so it's not going to take long to cross over this southern tip of Libya. About one hour, I think.
NARRATOR: Fossett got through Libya unscathed, and he's entering Sudanese airspace. The Saudi Arabians have given permission, but Fossett is still buzzed by two fighter planes over their territory. It's his fifth day in the air.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: Steve's quite tired, actually. Also, because the heaters in the capsule haven't worked reliably, especially when he was at the higher altitudes, and that's made it very difficult for him to get enough sleep.
STEVE FOSSETT: Probably the longest sleep that I had, it was thirty minutes long. Most sleeps were more of the five-minute variety. I had a lot of air traffic control communications to do.
NARRATOR: Although his auto-pilot is working flawlessly, Fossett is uncertain how much further he can go. He's tired and irritable. As he approaches the Pakistan border, he drops a bombshell via e-mail.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: "Over Iran, along the Gulf of Oman, under Pakistan ATC now. Considering landing near Calcutta or Dhaka tomorrow. I'll fly flight level 180 tonight. Cabin heaters should light at that level. Need sleep." That's the real message.
NARRATOR: Fossett, exhausted and at 24,000 feet, begins to disagree with the controllers in Chicago. While he wants to put down in India, the ground crew feel that he should go further.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: We're talking about various possibilities, and Burma is one, various places, in other places in southeast Asia are options. But possibly even Alaska, as a long shot.
ALAN NOBLE: How is it that all the technical wizardry craps out at the wrong time?
NARRATOR: All communications go down. Fossett is out of contact, and there's a new concern. The present track will sweep the balloon into the high Himalayas.
LOU BALLONES: Several of the mountains here are 20,000 feet, twenty-two up to 27,000 feet. In a gas balloon at high speeds with mountains around you, turbulence might be more than just a scare factor. It just might slam him into a mountain, or it could slam him into the ground.
NARRATOR: Fossett is unaware that his path is about to veer north. Communications are down. There's no way of telling him. To add to his woes, thunderstorms now lie dead ahead.
ALAN NOBLE: You don't play with thunderstorms. A balloon is a very, very fragile piece of equipment compared to a thunderstorm. You land.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: He's flailing around India now on his own.
BO KEMPER: We haven't heard from him since. . .
MAN: For an hour.
BO KEMPER: For an hour.
ALAN NOBLE: There's something wrong with his handset at the other end. That was air traffic control in Calcutta. They have had no information about the balloon since 13: 24.
BO KEMPER: My assumption, and our team's assumption is that he'll be landing.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: It works!
ALAN NOBLE: Hang on! We just got a message.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: We got a message from Steve! "Plan to land east coast of India, south of Calcutta."
NARRATOR: Fossett starts to come down, but not to land yet. He is determined to break the world duration record for a balloon. This means staying up until the middle of the day, flying right through thunderstorms.
ALAN NOBLE: Once we saw the storms, we advised him to land at dawn. Steve doesn't always take advice well, particularly when he's sort of five or six hours off duration record.
BO KEMPER: Can you tell him that there are lots of power lines in the area?
JENNY RITCHIE: He's slowed down quite a bit.
NARRATOR: It will be six more hours before the duration record is broken.
ALAN NOBLE: Message from Steve: "First line of thunderstorms didn't kill me. One thousand feet, or 700 above ground level. Ground speed. . ." He wouldn't have been able to see the thunderstorms. He probably didn't have much visibility at all. But he sat there, and we ticked off the hours.
BRUCE COMSTOCK: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Now.
BO KEMPER: Great job!
NARRATOR: Fossett now prepares to land. He's been flying for six days and one hour—the longest any manned balloon has ever stayed in the air.
BO KEMPER: Descent in fifteen minutes.
STEVE FOSSETT: The wind speeds on the ground were thirteen knots. This isn't too bad. I mean, we do balloon landings in thirteen knots. That's not a big problem. But these 'round-the-world balloons are bigger balloon systems and really don't control themselves as well.
NARRATOR: After six days, landing a balloon on your own is not an easy matter. Despite his best efforts, the flight isn't over yet. His third attempt to land is no more successful than the previous two. In the tanks remains a large quantity of flammable propane. He begins to wonder if he'll ever get it down.
STEVE FOSSETT: You control the descending and altitude with a gas valve, letting out helium, and the gas valve in this balloon was designed for a balloon one-third the size. And these burners were designed for a balloon one-third the size. Basically, I didn't have the fineness of control that I should have in this kind of balloon, and sure enough, I botched the landing. This was very embarrassing to have this balloon strung up in a tree. All that afternoon, I worked with the villagers. We were trying to figure out how to get this balloon out of the tree before somebody came with a camera to get a picture of this.
BO KEMPER: "It was a safe landing. Congratulations to all at Chicago Control."
NARRATOR: Steve Fossett had failed to make it around the world. But he had flown further and for a longer time than any balloonist in history. He'd stayed aloft for six days, two hours, and fifty-four minutes and flown halfway around the earth.
STEVE FOSSETT: I think it went better than I expected it to. I got to make a very long flight. It was measured out at 9,672 miles, which exceeded the distance record by over 4,000 miles.
NARRATOR: All the teams will be back with new balloons in January, 1998. This time, there are at least six crews all getting ready to take on this last great challenge: the first flight around the world by balloon.
ANNOUNCER: Who's up for the challenge this season? And what spells success or failure in the competitive world of ballooning? Take flight at www.pbs.org.
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Danger in the Jet Stream
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