First Around the World

For balloonists Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the end of one journey marked the beginning of another.

(Carolyn Russo, NASM)

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first balloon flight around the world. For almost three weeks in the spring of 1999, Bertrand Piccard (left) and Brian Jones rode in the cramped quarters of a bright red, carbon-composite egg, 16 feet long and 7 feet in diameter, suspended beneath a gigantic but fragile envelope of hot air and helium cells. Their Breitling Orbiter 3 gondola, which is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., was crammed with navigation and communications equipment, emergency survival gear, a single bunk, and a pressure-operated toilet. After taking off from the small Swiss village of Chateau d’Oex on March 1, the pair headed south to Africa and, communicating with meteorologists and a control center in Geneva mostly by fax, caught rides in a series of jet streams that carried them 25,361 miles to a landing in Egypt on March 21. So impressive was the wind forecasting and strategy for their journey that Steve Fossett hired their meteorologist, Luc Trullemans, for his own 2001 solo round-the-world balloon flight.

Shortly after Jones and Piccard returned, they founded the Winds of Hope foundation with a $1 million prize awarded by Anheuser-Busch for the record-setting flight. In celebration of the 10th anniversary, Jones is making a world tour in a much smaller, hot-air replica of the Breitling Orbiter 3 to raise money for the foundation. Among visits to Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan, and Venezuela, Jones will make several stops in the United States: a private visit to Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, near Reno, Nevada, to make a tribute flight in memory of Steve Fossett, as well as a public appearance at the National Air and Space Museum (see below). At the Museum, Jones will bring birthday greetings to a ten-year-old girl, born on the night before he and Piccard landed, just at the time that the Breitling Orbiter 3 was crossing the latitude where she came into the world. Caught up in the balloonists’ adventure and delighted by the joyousness of their success, Annapolis, Maryland residents Howard and Sharon Snyder named their newborn daughter Breitling.

Pilot Brian Jones will make a special appearance at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall on Thursday, October 1, at noon.


(Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones)

Crews had begun inflating the Breitling Orbiter’s envelope at three o’clock on the morning of the launch from Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland, a ski resort 35 miles southwest of Bern. At about 9 a.m. local time on March 1, 1999, amid the loud ringing of church bells, cheers from thousands who had assembled, and the blaring of a fire engine’s siren, the crew chief severed the last rope holding the balloon—with a Swiss Army knife, of course.

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