Up, Up and Away

updated 04/05/1999 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1999 01:00AM

Over the years, more than a score of ballooning teams have tried in vain to become the first to circle the globe nonstop. So what was remarkable about Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and his British partner, Brian Jones, was not only that they did what no one had done before, but how easy they made it look. Aside from lulls they hit over the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, they managed to race around the world in 20 days with no major crises and hardly any sweat, landing their Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon in the Egyptian desert on March 21. "For me, the best moment was between the takeoff and the landing," said an exultant Piccard, 41, back on the ground. "We could hardly believe it was so fabulous."

Of course they did have some advantages. Along with their gear in the 25-by-7-foot gondola they called home, they carried a copy of A Woman's Life, by Guy de Maupassant, which had been in the personal library of Jules Verne, author of Around the World in Eighty Days. The book had been loaned as a good-luck charm by Verne's great-grandson Jean Verne. "To think that that book had been handled and read by Jules Verne, and we had it with us too," said Piccard. "It was wonderful."

The team also had a decisive edge in expertise. The balloon, built at a cost of more than $3 million, featured an innovative layer of insulation around the gigantic helium chamber that reduced the gas's expansion and contraction, thus saving fuel needed to reheat it. And Jones, 52, a Royal Air Force veteran who is married with two grown children, has been a professional ballooning instructor for 10 years. For neither him nor Piccard was failure an option. "I suppose the good thing is that when you are 30,000 feet in a balloon and you want to give up, you simply can't," he explained.

Piccard, a psychiatrist in Lausanne, would seem an unlikely candidate for such an undertaking—but for the fact that his grandfather Auguste Piccard invented the pressurized gondola of modern ballooning and used it in 1931 to become the first person to reach the stratosphere, ascending to an altitude of more than 51,000 feet. Auguste also invented the underwater bathyscaphe, which his son Jacques, now 76, Bertrand's father, used to descend near the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, the deepest point on the earth. Given his illustrious lineage it was no wonder that Bertrand, who is married with three daughters, saw his mission as something perfectly natural—even necessary. "If people would accept changes a little better, accept the unknown," he said, "all life would be a beautiful adventure."

With their success, Piccard and Jones found themselves in the happy position of deciding what to do with the $1 million prize offered by Anheuser-Busch to the first balloonists to complete a round-the-world flight. At least half of the money is likely to go for charitable causes around the world. But a more immediate concern was to rescue Orbiter 3, left abandoned in the desert, so that it might be donated to a place like the Smithsonian. There will, for the time being, be no more adventures. "My next exploit will be something I've been wanting to do for a long time," said Piccard, "which is sit with my wife and daughters and father in front of a warm fire and tell them about this trip."

Bill Hewitt
Helena Bachmann in Geneva, Ellen Lieberman in London and Drusilla Menaker in Cairo

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