On March 21, 1999, a bright silver balloon came down from the sky and landed on a desolate desert in Mauritania. The landing was an occasion for celebration: it was the third attempt of Bertrand Piccard, a psychiatrist from Lausanne, Switzerland, and Brian Jones, a British hot air balloon instructor, to circumnavigate the globe, and this attempt had been successful!
Since 1993, balloon teams had made 23 attempts to circumnavigate the globe. Piccard himself had launched two of the failed journeys. Due to a remarkable concordance of skill and luck, and perhaps also due to the absence of bad luck, the 24th attempt proved successful.
Piccard and Jones began in Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland on March 1 and crossed over Mauritania (see map below) early in the course, placing their circumnavigation mark at 9 degrees, 27 minutes west. This became their finish line. (The zero degree longitude line passes through England, France, Spain, Algeria, etc.) The two flew over Northern Africa, Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean before returning to their point of departure.
Finally, the ground team reported to Piccard and Jones that they had crossed the finish line, and the pilots began their descent. Reports about the landing were mixed. Observers thought that the landing was nearly perfect, although Jones said that the pilots had to put holes in the gondola in order to make the balloon stop.
Bertrand Piccard seems to have been born to lead such a record-breaking journey. His father, grandfather and great uncle were scientific inventors and explorers, and have a collective entry in Compton's Encyclopedia under the heading, "The Piccard Family." Bertrand's grandfather, Auguste Piccard, invented the pressurized crew gondola, a device enabling balloons to fly as high as 50,000 feet. Auguste's twin brother, Jean-Félix, was a chemical engineer who conducted stratospheric explorations in balloons for cosmic-ray research. Auguste's son (and Bertrand's father), Jacques Piccard, worked for NASA and also invented the Bathyscaphe, a submersible vessel which allowed Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Donald Walsh to explore the 36,198-foot depth of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of any ocean on earth.
Growing up in such a family, it is no wonder that Bertrand Piccard would become an aviation enthusiast early in his life. Very early on he admired those who, in his words, "showed how interesting life could be if you explored the world." Ironically, the heroes he named--astronauts James Lovell, Bill Anders, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn and Wally Schirra--all made their mark exploring beyond the world. While still in college, Piccard hang-glided and flew light aircraft, behaving as if he were meant for the sky.
Piccard's and Jones' successful orbit won them a one million dollar prize put up by a major beer company, half of which they have agreed to donate to various organizations which help impoverished children in the countries they flew over. While receiving the "Magellan Award," from the Circumnavigators' Club in New York City, Piccard and Jones talked about this decision:
"It would have been stupid to come just to glorify ourselves or our team about having achieved this flight. What we wanted to do was pay back a little bit of the luck we had to succeed and to be useful to the people that we flew over. ... because our around-the-world flight gives us a lot of [exposure], a lot of interviews, a lot of lectures... And it gives [us] the possibility to talk about ... all the suffering there is on this planet. [This suffering] is not something that is so far away from us."
In September, 1999, the successful balloonists created the Winds of Hope Foundation to combat forgotten or neglected causes of suffering throughout the world, especially those affecting children. Their work spreads hope around the world.