Spotlight on Games
September 15, 2002
Balmy Balloonists? Well, you'd have to be, wouldn't you, to risk life and
limb, not to mention millions of dollars 30,000 feet above the earth? Today's
trans-world balloons are outfitted with all of the latest in high technology
brainpower and skill both in the capsule and on the ground, but
it didn't start out that way.
Although the principle of buoyancy or flotation was first discovered
by that polymath Archimedes in 240 BC, it was
1783 before the French Montgolfier
brothers had the brilliant idea of
filling a balloon with hot air to
create the first documented flying ship. On the 19th
of September, in what was perhaps the first and last sane moment of
balloon travel, a sheep, a duck
and a rooster were the first balloonists to try
this outlandish invention. The first men to fly in a hot-air balloon, or
were Jean-Françoise Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes.
In a curious case of parallel, but entirely separate inspiration, at the same time,
also in France, a
physicist named J.A.C. Charles was experimenting with hydrogen.
And, just a few days after the manned Montgolfier experiment, he
made the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon! The
Age of Flight was born.
It only took 18 months for someone to try something more balmy.
It was Rozier who tried to see if he could cross the English Channel
in a hybrid balloon of his own creation, one using both hydrogen and
flame-heated air. Unfortunately the hydrogen caught flame and although
the balloonists were not in danger of fire, they were unable to control
the craft and in the crash sadly became ballooning's first fatalities. Its
pilot's idea –
now known as the Rozier Balloon – was a brilliant one, however,
and was to become
crucial as the only practical way to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon.
Throughout the 19th century, balloons were used almost exclusively for military
and scientific purposes. In 1850 French meteorologists Barral and Dixio took
off in a balloon whose net was too small for its envelope. As the hydrogen
expanded in the upper atmosphere, the envelope was squeezed out of the
open bottom of the net lowered itself right onto the basket! The panicked
weathermen slashed away with knives, but succeeded only in releasing hydrogen
which put them into deep sleep! Incredibly, the now nearly-empty envelope
acted as a parachute and lowered them none-too-gently to the ground. They
awoke to find themselves in a vineyard, their balloon demolished, their
bodies sore all over and thankful to be alive.
Another incident of some interest was the attempt by the Confederate States
of America to employ balloons during the American Civil War. The brash young
Captain John Randolph Bryan ascended in a tethered
cotton envelope balloon, but one of his ground crew caught his foot and leg
in the cable. To save him, the cable was cut. Now adrift, Bryan found himself
over enemy lines, but did not encounter firing until he reached his own lines,
where the Confederates assumed he must be sent by the enemy. The hot air
leaving his balloon, Bryan, nothing daunted, shinnied down the dangling tether
and tied his balloon to an apple tree.
But despite such mishaps, some wealthy men became interested in
ballooning for fun about 1895 and the Aero Club of France was founded in
1898 to regulate the sport. Other similar bodies were established in other
countries shortly afterward. In 1905, the International Aeronautical
Federation (IAF) was organized to furnish international control.
Since 1906, when U.S. newspaperman James Gordon Bennett established a trophy for
long-distance ballooning, sportsmen have striven to fly the
farthest. An American race was conducted each year, except during World War I
and 1931, up until 1938. Ballooning was like yachting, an exclusive
sport for the wealthy.
This changed in 1960 when American Edward Yost invented a propane
burner that changes gas power into hot air. Interest took off to such
an extent that
the first ballooning world championships were held in the United
States, in 1973. In 1978 the Atlantic was crossed with a helium-filled
balloon and from October 9-12, 1981, Fred Gorell and John Shucraft
completed the first non-stop transcontinental balloon flight. In
1981, the team of Newman, Abruzzo, Aoki and Clark launched from
Nagashima, Japan to be the first to cross the Pacific in a
helium-filled balloon, landing in Covello, California. By 1990,
the team of Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson
had conquered both the Atlantic and the Pacific in hot-air ballons as well,
often under harrowing conditions, once having to leap off a
capsule into the Irish Sea and another time landing in a Canadian blizzard
with temperatures at -20 degrees and four hours away from help.
Eventually, however, balloonists set their sights on an around-the-world flight.
Americans Maxie Anderson and Don Ida made the first attempt, in 1981, but
flew only 2,676 miles, from Egypt to India. In 1995, American Steve Fossett
piloted a Rozier style balloon from Seoul to Saskatchewan, setting a new distance
record at the time. He had to bail out from a 1996 attempt when his
outer envelope was shredded.
In 1997, his
launched in St. Louis in memory of Lindbergh,
crossed the Atlantic and cruised
southeast over Eastern Europe.
When he reached Turkey, he reported that his cabin heater had
broken down and that there were control problems with the burners.
Running low on fuel over India, progress slowed due to light winds and
it was decided to abandon the attempt.
In the same year, Switzerland's Bertrand Piccard launched in
the first Breitling orbiter. Six hours into the attempt, a
clip came loose, flooding the gondola with fuel and forcing
them to ditch.
In mid-1997, with the announcement
of the Anheuser-Busch $1,000,000 prize, the race heated up like never before.
By the end of that year, there were six teams poised to be the first
to fly non-stop around the world in a balloon. What happened to them sounds
more like a comedy of crazy errors – one couldn't make a film like this,
for who would ever believe it?
- Richard Branson's
Virgin Challenger was left behind in North Africa
when his balloon took off without him. After waiting in
vain for suitable weather, he abandoned his attempt until
December of 1998.
- Steve Fossett's 1998
attempt launched again in Missouri
and this time made it as far as Krasnodar, Russia before
being forced down by technical problems.
- Dick Rutan's Global Hilton World balloon
launched from Albuquerque, but he soon parachuted out with his co-pilot after
discovering a leak in a helium cell.
- In Switzerland, Bertrand Piccard and Andy Elson in the Breitling-Orbiter 2
suffered a setback when the capsule was dropped while being
unloaded from its trailer. The joke was that between
Branson's lost envelope and Piccard's damaged capsule, they
barely had a complete balloon between them. The damage
took several days to repair. He launched at the end of
January 1998, but was becalmed and made very slow progress
across Europe. As he approached the Far East it became
doubtful that he would obtain permission to overfly China
and it was decided instead to stay in the air long enough
to break the airborne endurance record. The Chinese finally
gave permission, but it came too late for Piccard to make
it round the world. The Orbiter landed in Burma on 6
- The J. Renee Balloon
flight was aborted after the envelope ripped.
- Just to cap off the season in the most exciting way,
Steve Fossett made a second attempt in August, this time
taking off from Argentina. But at 28,000 feet over the
Coral Sea and in the middle of the night his Rozier ruptured
during a thunderstorm. He turned on his burners at full
power and lay on his bunk awaiting impact, which probably
saved his life. But by the time he emerged the envelope
had caught fire and he was almost asphyxiated by a combination
of toxic fumes and the balloon collapsing on top of him.
From his life raft he tried to activate his emergency
beacon, but accidentally pressed the test button instead.
Miraculously he was directly underneath a satellite so it
was picked up anyway and eventually he was rescued. Despite
these hair-raising events, he accepted a place in Richard
Branson's upcoming attempt shortly thereafter.
So much for the crazy events of the 1997-8 season. Not chastened by these
events, many of the balloonists returned in 1999 for another go!
Team RE/MAX Balloon (earlier "The Dymocks Flyer")
attempting to launch from Alice Springs, Australia, were prevented by
weather and technical complications from lifting off
with their unique stratospheric balloon.
- Then Richard Branson, Steve Fossett and Per Lindstrand teamed up, this
time in the ICO Global Balloon. The balloon entered Tibetan
airspace without permission and flew into Central China, its pilots
explaining that it was impossible to safely land on the mountains
at the border. This caused China to immediately ban all further
balloon flights. Despite good progress, the branch of the jet stream they
followed led them to windless air off Hawaii. Branson lost
his $300,000 side bet when they were forced to ditch in
the Pacific Ocean (reportedly bouncing one hundred feet
back into the air in the process), in December of 1998.
- Discouraged by the Chinese ban, both Kevin Uliassi and Jacques Soukup
abandoned their attempts.
- Not deterred however were
Andy Elson and Colin Prescott who nonetheless launched in their
Cable and Wireless
Following them by just a few days was the Breitling 3 balloon,
launching from Switzerland.
Elson's balloon was doing well, managing to fly south of China and
miss it completely.
But on March 6, 1999, cruising over Taiwan,
was forced to reduce altitude due to bad weather and to
avoid planes in a busy air corridor. They lacked spare
batteries and could not ascend above the clouds to charge
solar cells because it would have taken them in the wrong direction
and eventually because without power could not pump kerosene into the burners.
Thus they were forced to ditch in the sea west of Japan.
- Piloted by Brian Jones, of Britain, and his Swiss co-pilot Bertrand Piccard, the
Breitling-Orbiter 3, actually completed the first
around-the-world trip on March 20, 1999, though not without
incident. High over the Pacific, minor repairs to a valve
were required. To accomplish them, Piccard held Jones over
the edge of the balloon by just one foot. Reportedly the
Englishman did not really find the experience very amusing.
Nevertheless, after decades of trying, man had a last achieved
what once seemed impossible. But what next?
Have the Balmy Balloonists no more worlds to conquer?
Altitude is the height above a constant surface, usually
considered to be average sea level in both aeronautics and
meteorology. Among balloonists, altitude is often called
"Flight Level" (FL) and the final two digits of the number lopped
off. Thus, an altitude of 33,500 feet would be written "FL335".
In the game
can maneuver among three
relative altitudes: low, medium and high.
is considered to be below 2000 meters (about 6600
feet), or the height most modern, casual, hot-air balloonists
attain. No special clothing or equipment is required at
these altitudes. Winds can blow in almost any direction,
and are usually light.
represents heights ranging through the middle-troposphere, or about
3000 to 7500 meters (9900 - 24750 feet) high. Temperatures
can be quite cold in this range and usually special equipment,
e.g. a pressurized cabin or at least an oxygen mask above 20000 feet, are required.
Winds can be strong, but seldom reach
speeds of 70 knots per hour or more; additionally, wind directions
are less variable at these heights.
represents heights at the level of the
speeds of 70 knots per hour or more; additionally, wind directions
about 8000 and 10000 meters (26400 - 33000 feet) or more.
The Breitling-3 actually reached an altitude of 38500 feet flying
over the western Sahara. Temperatures are always very
cold, often below freezing, and winds in center of jets can be very strong,
including speeds over 100 knots per hour. Only
the best-prepared balloonists with the best equipment can
travel at these heights. Additionally, a
can generally not attain this kind of height without burning
a lot of
The best way to make a balloon go up quickly is to drop ballast.
Historically sand bags, whose contents may be easily poured out,
have been the usual form of ballast.
In addition, most of the long distance
tanks for this purpose, which the balloonists
try not to drop over populated areas. The hope is
that they do not need to drop ballast before they have empty
This was unfortunately not the case for Steve Fossett's 1998
attempt when he was forced to
unload about 80 gallons of
– 10 percent of his 20-day supply –
to raise the balloon above a bad
system. On Richard Branson's historic
Pacific Hot Air crossing,
when he dumped the first empty
tank, it also accidentally released two
full ones, causing the balloon to soar up to 36,000 feet.
Fortunately they still had 35 hours of
The balloons used in the recent around-the-world attempts
have all been of the Rozier type. This means that the
overall Envelope includes cells
both of lighter-than-air Gas as well as
air heated by Fuel. This compromise
approach works better than using either Gas or Fuel alone.
With a Gas-only approach, it is likely that too much Gas
would be lost before the trip was ended while a Fuel-only
Balloon probably couldn't carry all the Fuel necessary.
- Busy Air Corridor
is in an area with a lot of heavier-than-air craft –
generally major metropolitan areas – it must descend for safety.
On their 1999 around-the-world attempt, Andy Elson and Colin Prescott in
the Cable and Wireless Balloon had been doing well cruising over Taiwan,
but were forced to reduce
due to bad
and to avoid planes
in a busy air corridor. Their flight was never to recover.
- Communications Difficulties
is most often made from aluminized Mylar, when a
is located directly beneath a satellite the
radio waves bounce off the Envelope and the balloon is essentially
in a "cone of silence".
This can be critical as the
balloonists do not have the wind charting abilities that ground has
and cannot act optimally without excellent communications.
This problem may well have affected
Steve Fossett's 1998
It also afflicted the Breitling-3 Balloon from time to time, particularly
when flying close to the Equator.
vehicle comprises two fundamental components:
the capsule which carries the balloonists and their equipment
and the large,
which in a Rozier-style
Balloon includes cells for both
is used in the construction of the Envelope because it makes a good
insulator, preventing overheating during the day and retaining heat
For around-the-world attempts, the Envelopes required are quite large.
The Breitling-3 Envelope's volume was 650,000 cubic feet.
And it was not the largest.
At take-off, the Gas
cell is only partially filled because as the Balloon rises, solar
heating expands the Gas. At night to compensate, balloonists burn Fuel to heat
up the plain air beneath the Gas cell, also transmitting heat to
the Gas. The Breitling-3 Envelope had a couple of special interesting
features. One was a pair of appendices – two tubes of material three feet
in diameter running from the Gas cell down the outside of the Envelope –
which automatically acted as
safety valves to release Gas if the Balloon exceeded its natural ceiling.
The other was a secondary, smaller Gas Cell at the very top of the Envelope
(giving it its elongated ice-cream cone shape) which creates a
(specially-insulated) tent at the top of the Envelope to keep it from getting
too hot. The smaller cell keeps the tent away from the main cell and thus
further avoids heat transfer to it. Coincidentally, it also minimizes the
loss of heat from the main cell out the top at night.
- Envelope Ripped
Obviously preserving the integrity of the
is of utmost importance for a
and the ability to maintain hot air, the usual result is
that the voyage must be aborted.
A common reason for tears is the too-quick expansion of Gas during
ascent. This happened to the 1998
J. Renee Balloon
as well as
the pilots of Dick Rutan's Global Hilton World Balloon, who
parachuted out shortly after launch.
In fact the very first Rozier Balloon ever to be flown had this problem
and the escaped Gas came into contact with the burning straw, blew up
and killed the inventor. This problem also afflicted the
Don Cameron Zanussi attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic.
Steve Fossett's August 1998 southern hemispheric around-the-world attempt was aborted
when his Envelope ruptured during a thunderstorm and he was forced to ditch
in the ocean, from which he was subsequently rescued.
Tears can also occur at take-off, particularly in cold
as the Envelope may become frozen to the ground and open during inflation.
This was a primary concern of the Breitling-3 team launching in the
frozen Alps during March.
- Equatorial Doldrums
The Equatorial Doldrums is the
term used for the region which on the game weatheris located
around the outside of the map, approaching the earth's equator.
As surface air moves toward the equator from the north or south,
it is heated by tropical sunlight. Warmer air rises, and rising air
creates calms, or doldrums. The result is that at low levels
in the atmosphere, very little wind occurs at all. Even at higher
winds are much lighter than usual
in the game, Balloons caught in the Doldrums do not move at all.
While Fire in a
is almost certainly catastrophic,
it can also be quite dangerous in the capsule where it sometimes breaks
out. Certainly at the very least it will occupy fully the attention
of the pilot or pilots until extinguished. In 1998, shortly after
liftoff a burner
tank connection sprung a leak in Steve Fossett's
capsule, starting a Fire.
He reportedly lost his eyebrows and received other minor burns before
extinguishing it. He also temporarily lost two burners, later repairing one
which employ hot air do so by fueling burners which heat up
the plain air in the
and by osmosis, also the
Gas is sufficient to get the Balloon aloft, the control
offered by regulable Fuel is required to get Balloons through the
cold air and to the high
required to take advantage of the
that is the only path to successful circumnavigation.
This Fuel which may be either propane
or kerosene is generally stored in large tanks hung around the outside
of the capsule, thirty-two of them in the case of the Breitling-3.
The advantage of kerosene is that it can be carried in synthetic
rubber bags instead of titanium tanks. The kerosene that was carried
in the Breitling-1 weighed only one hundred pounds – had it been
propane, it would have come to a ton. Containment of kerosene can
cause problems, however. The Breitling-1 crew had one of its tanks
overflow into the floor of the capsule and contaminate the water reserve.
The pilots were forced to land after only six hours due to exposure to the vapor.
In the Breitling-2 there were also problems as one-third of the kerosene
was lost in flight. The Breitling-3 flight switched to propane.
While the earliest
used hydrogen gas to make the aircraft
lighter than air, more modern vehicles employ helium as a less flammable
alternative. Gas, which is always slowly leaking out of the
provides the original bouyancy to the Balloon and tends
to provide even more when heated by the rays of the sun. As the
balloonists have no way to cool off the hot air in the Envelope,
when they wish to descend or stop ascending, they release Gas.
The Envelope includes valves at the top of the Gas cell by which Gas
can be released to do this.
- Heater Problems
travel at the high
where the best
winds is not without problems, mainly in accommodating the needs
of the human passengers. Due to lack of oxygen, the historical
open basket gondola gives way to a closed, pressurized capsule.
And to cope with the very cold temperatures, a capsule-heating
system must be supplied. Should this system fail, the Balloon
must reduce altitude to reach temperatures fit for human habitation.
In 1997, while over Turkey, Steve Fossett had to bail out
of his 1997 Solo Spirit attempt partly because
his cabin heater had broken down. Actually, this was not the first
time Fossett has experienced this particular difficulty. In an attempt
to cross the Pacific, both of his cabin heaters failed soon after launch.
With temperatures at night below zero he had only his
sleeping bag to help keep him warm. To keep his drinking
water from freezing he found it necessary to keep the bottle
next to his body. For the next four days Fossett caught 45
minute cat naps as he flew his balloon across the Pacific.
- Jet Stream
Jet Streams are bands of high-speed winds
in the upper atmosphere which blow from west to
east. In the game, the
current state of the Jet Streams is depicted by the Quadrant Cards.
Obviously, the higher mountain ranges of this world such as the
Alps, Rockies and Himalayas provide
obstacles for balloonists to surmount. In addition to their physical presence,
they also generate air turbulence which is caused by wind hitting steep
mountain faces and becoming unstable. As the Breitling-3 crew discovered in Myanmar,
this can make a balloon shoot up and down quite disconcertingly.
This was also a problem for the Double Eagle flying
over the mountainous terrain of Maine and eastern Canada
which they crossed before entering the Atlantic. As a result they
were forced to expend considerably more ballast than planned.
Of course no balloonist wants to land in the sea, but it is
the easiest place to fly since there no one tries to prevent it.
In many parts of the land this is not the case.
Area 51 in the southwestern United States is a no-fly zone because
it is a training zone for multiple bases of the United States Air Force.
(It also contains Roswell, the rumored location of captured aliens.)
The airspace over Iraq remains a no-fly zone as a result of the Gulf War.
Libya has been sensitive about overflights of its country by Westerners
ever since the Anglo-American bombings.
The Peoples Republic of China is concerned about flights over
its western regions, site of its nuclear weapons deployments, and Tibet.
In addition, there are remote areas where no air traffic controllers
do not have radar and where, should a balloon be forced to land, it
might take a very long time for rescue teams to arrive, potentially
causing a loss of face for China.
In 1999 the Breitling-3 team in a six-week negotiation arranged
permission for a precise corridor over which to fly across this large country.
Later that year Richard Branson, faced with a sudden wind change
flew his balloon into Tibet and central China without permission,
explaining that it was impossible to land on
the mountainous terrain at the border. This caused China to immediately
ban all balloon flights within its borders and partly because of this,
both Kevin Uliassi and Jacques Soukup had to give up their attempts.
The Breitling-3 team re-opened negotiations
and eventually balloonists were once again allowed, but only in the narrow
strip south of the 26th parallel of latitude. For more, read
"Branson balloon avoids Iraq" from the Augusta Chronicle.
- Polar Vortex
term for the area north of the temperate zone. In this region,
reduced sunlight results in cooling of the air. Cold air sinking
to the ground produces a weak northerly and easterly flow in the
atmosphere. These polar easterlies rotate around the globe in the
opposite direction of the mid-latitude westerlies. In the game this means
that a balloon trapped in the Polar Vortex tends to be pushed backwards.
- Solar Panels
Solar panels are photovoltaic cells on an assembly which hangs off a
line connected to the capsule. During the day they collect solar energy
which is converted to electricity used by the balloonists to power their
instruments and provide heat for the capsule. If the
through a thunderstorm which damages the panels and this energy is lost,
the pilots can compensate by burning
but doing this is to consume
a precious resource needed to heat the
Photo of the Breitling-2 solar panel assembly.
Weather, and its study, called "meteorology," are absolutely
critical for balloonists. The successful Breitling-3 around-the-world
voyage employed two meteorologists using the best weather data gathered
from satellites, radio balloons, aircraft and ships
and working around the the clock to ensure that the balloon was always
situated in the optimal winds. In the game, the general weather pattern
is reflected by the Quadrant cards while local conditions are shown by
the Local Wind cards. In addition, some Misfortune cards reflect Bad Weather
conditions which have unpredictable effects on Balloon positions.
Sources consulted in creation of the game:
- Crouch, Tom D.,
The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America,
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983
- Dollfus, Charles,
The Orion Book of Balloons,
- Dwiggins, Don,
Riders of the Winds: The Story of Ballooning,
- Ege, Lennart,
Balloons and Airships,
- Freeman, Tony,
On the Move...: Hot Air Balloons,
Childrens Press, 1983
- Glines, C.V.,
- Hawkes, Nigel,
Amazing Achievements: A Celebration of Human Ingenuity,
Thunder Bay Press, 1996, San Diego
- Hayes, Will,
The Complete Ballooning Book,
- Hayman, LeRoy,
Up, Up and Away: All About Balloons, Blimps and Dirigibles,
Simon & Schuster, 1980
- McCarry, Charles,
- Perry, Phyllis J.,
Franklin Watts, 1996
- Piccard, Bertrand,
"Around at Last",
National Geographic, September 1999, pp. 30-51
- Piccard, Bertrand and Brian Jones,
Around the World in 20 Days: The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flight
- Piccard, Bertrand and Brian Jones,
The Greatest Adventure
- Scarry, Huck,
- Scott, Phil,
"The Balloon That Flew round the World",
Scientific American, November 1999, pp. 110-113
- Sotomayor, Antonio,
Balloons: The First Two Hundred Years,
- Waligunda, Bob and Larry Sheehan,
The Great American Balloon Book,
- Wegen, Ron,
1782-1972, Smithsonian, 1972
- The Romance of Ballooning,
Up and Away Games