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Swiss balloonist salutes solo heroics

Steve Fossett has fulfilled his dream of travelling around the world single-handed in a balloon Keystone Archive

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard has congratulated American Steve Fossett for his successful solo circumnavigation of the globe in a hot-air balloon.

Fossett drifted into aviation history on Tuesday by completing the first solo round-the-world trip in a balloon. The millionaire succeeded at his sixth attempt, crossing an imaginary finishing line south of Australia after travelling 31,000 kilometres in two weeks.

On previous occasions, the American had always ended his trip prematurely by crashing somewhere, such as the Pacific Ocean or on the Russian steppes.

Piccard, who was the first man with British crewmate Brian Jones to successfully travel around the world non-stop in balloon in 1999, was delighted to learn of Fossett’s achievement.

“I admire his performance very much,” said Piccard. “I am very happy someone took up where Brian Jones and myself left off, doing the trip solo and improving the record.”

Different experiences

Piccard said there were some differences between his own trailblazing flight and Fossett’s. “Our main difficulty was to know if such a trip was feasible,” he told swissinfo.

“For Steve, the real challenge was to manage his sleep, his concentration, to stay awake so as to carry out his work all by himself. I think the most incredible flight would have been to combine our two experiences, to travel around the world in a balloon for the very first time, and alone.”

Fossett chose a more southerly route for his attempt, travelling at much lower latitudes than Piccard and Jones, and a much shorter distance compared to the Anglo-Swiss duo’s 45,000 kilometres.

However, Piccard said this did not make the American’s flight any less remarkable than his own achievement. “He chose the southern hemisphere mainly because he didn’t have to talk to air traffic controllers,” he said.

“That means that when he was sleeping, there wasn’t somebody calling him every 10 minutes to make sure he wouldn’t crash into an aircraft or that he would keep his altitude and direction.”

Travelling the southern route had other advantages too. “He didn’t have to make a whole lot of requests to enter different countries’ airspace,” Piccard told swissinfo. “He was over water most of the time, and that is probably the only way of doing it solo.”

During his own second attempt to circumnavigate the globe, the Swiss adventurer had been stopped by a Chinese refusal to let his balloon enter national airspace, forcing him to land in Myanmar.

Physical preparation

Other than the chosen route, Piccard doesn’t see much difference between his own trip and Fossett’s. According to the Swiss, their strategies have much in common.

“We both relied very much on our weathermen. One of ours was in fact Steve Fossett’s main meteorologist, so he was able to build on our experience.”

Piccard also praised Fossett’s preparation, pointing out that what the Anglo-Swiss team had invested in technology, the American had done likewise physically.

“Steve trained himself to sleep at altitudes of more than 6,000 metres in a decompression chamber, in order to survive at high altitude without pressurisation. He also kept himself very fit, so that was his main skill for this flight.”

Now that Fossett has extended the limits of ballooning, one might think that Piccard could be tempted to do even better. But the Swiss balloonist says he is unlikely to rise to the challenge.

“I was interested in being the first to fly around the world in a balloon, Steve wanted to be the first to do it alone,” he told swissinfo. “There’s no way we are going to fight for records, because I am only interested in being a pioneer.”

by Scott Capper

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR