The (Not Yet) Around-the-World Balloonists

Adventurers for an age without adventure.

Of all the sorry moments in the around-the-world balloon “race”–and God knows there have been plenty of them–the sorriest occurred last week. On Jan. 9, the Global Hilton balloon burst a helium tank 70 minutes after takeoff, and Dick Rutan and his co-pilot were forced to bail out at 11,000 feet. They parachuted directly into a cactus patch. Rutan, you may remember, is one of the true adventurers of the age: In 1986, he piloted the Voyager airplane on its astonishing nonstop, around-the-world journey. Now, 12 years later, the aviation pioneer is picking cactus spines out of his face, the latest casualty of the world’s most pointless competition. What is the great balloon race? The irrepressible pursuing the irrelevant.

Howard Hughes sped around the world by plane, and Ted Turner has squandered plenty of his millions on America’s Cup yachts. But today ballooning is the pastime of the gentleman adventurer. Winter is around-the-world balloon season–it’s when the jet stream runs consistently west to east–so the last few weeks have witnessed, and the next few weeks will witness, an orgy of circumnavigation attempts. A few days before Rutan’s crash, commodities trader Steve Fossett gave up his effort when his balloon ran out of fuel over Russia. A few days before that, architect Kevin Uliassi aborted his flight after his balloon blew a hole during takeoff. In the next few weeks eccentric Brit billionaire Richard Branson (whose last balloon took off without him) and Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard are each expected to launch their multimillion-dollar airships. Uliassi, too, wants to relaunch his balloon.

The balloonists have captured the public imagination, and not without reason. The nonstop, around-the-world balloon flight is the only remaining aviation milestone. The expeditions make great television: They unfold slowly over several days, and the visuals of sun-kissed balloons are fabulous. The balloonists seem genuinely heroic: They endure cramped quarters and subzero temperatures, and they face real danger. In 1995, Belarus jets shot down a racing balloon, killing its two pilots, while China, North Korea, and Libya are all thought to be hostile to balloon flyovers. And there is something charmingly antiquated about the venture. (No ballooning story is complete without reference to Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. So here it is.) Anheuser-Busch, hearkening back to the aviation prizes of the ‘20s, has ponied up $1 million for the first person to circumnavigate by 1999 (half for the balloonist, half for the charity of his choice).

Balloonists and journalists are calling the race the “Last Great Adventure.” But that phrase does violence to the notion of adventure. Once upon a time, adventuring was a purposeful activity. Magellan circled the earth in order to open it to trade, Lewis and Clark went west to build a country. Flying adventurers, too, recorded genuine, necessary accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh’s crossing wasn’t just a stunt: It made real the idea of transatlantic air travel. Hughes’ around-the-world flights made real the idea of global air travel. Even Voyager had a scientific aim: It vindicated the notion of ultralight planes and proved the value of ultralight materials.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

The around-the-world balloon race, by contrast, is a nonsensical exercise. We have climbed as high as we can and sunk as deep as we can. We’ve gone as far north as possible and as far south. We’ve broken the sound barrier on land and in water, circled the globe by water and by air. Now it has come to this. The balloon race is the hot-dog-eating contest of aviation. No one has ever bothered to break the ballooning record because there’s no reason to do it. Balloons are a uniquely terrible mode of transportation: They are impossible to steer, slow, and dangerous. They are also hideously expensive. The journey has no real-world utility. Passenger balloons can contribute nothing to transportation or science. Will a successful circumnavigation usher in an era of commercial balloon airlines?

This insignificance is a shame, because today’s adventurers are as brave as their predecessors. The balloonists are adrenalin junkies, but brainy ones. Branson, the genius behind Virgin, is as bold with his life as with his businesses. He has crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific by speedboat and balloon. Along the way he’s crashed in (and been rescued from) the Canadian Arctic and the Atlantic. Fossett (who’s worth only $25 million to $50 million) is equally insouciant: He has driven in the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, raced sled dogs in the Iditarod, completed the Ironman triathlon, run an ultramarathon, and set the ballooning distance and endurance records. Rutan was a Vietnam fighter jock and test pilot. Piccard is a champion hang-glider and professional balloon racer. (Piccard’s family history is Exhibit No. 1 in the decline of the great adventure. His grandfather Auguste Piccard invented the submersible bathyscaph and was the first person to balloon into the stratosphere. His father, Jacques Piccard, set the underwater depth record in another submersible. Jacques also invented the tourist submarine. The third-generation Piccard, no less a daredevil, is reduced to competitive ballooning.)

Balloon experts give Branson, Piccard, or Rutan decent odds to complete the circumnavigation, eventually: All three have pressurized gondolas that allow them to travel fast through the high jet stream. All have deep pockets. There are doubts about Fossett and Uliassi, who fly in unpressurized gondolas: Their balloons must travel slowly, at lower altitudes, and they are more exposed to the cold. Fossett and Uliassi are also flying solo, making them vulnerable to fatigue on a two-week trip.

In any case, let’s hope that someone finishes the race soon, so the balloonists can move on to something worthwhile–such as, say, the Mars Prize. America wants a manned Mars outpost. Instead of giving NASA $400 billion to build one, Newt Gingrich has suggested that the United States offer a $20-billion reward for the private organization that does it first. Branson has mulled over the idea of going into space. Why not the Red Planet? (Its color, after all, matches his omnipresent Virgin logo.) The Mars Prize–that’s an adventure worthy of Branson’s courage. And that’s an adventure that mankind could actually use.