Incredibly, even as late as the 1990s, no one had claimed the prize of being the first to fly around the world in a balloon.
The “Great Balloon Race,” as it was called, attracted aviators and wealthy adventurers. Several crews attempted to break the record in the 1990s. One landed in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii after running low on fuel.
Another was drenched in rainstorms and was forced down near Japan. No one was seriously injured during these trips, but others were not so fortunate.
In 1995, two balloonists were killed when they were shot down over Belarus in Asia. Belarus officials thought the two men were on a spy mission.
In March 1999, a Swiss named Bertrand Piccard and his partner, Brian Jones, from Great Britain, took off from Switzerland. Their balloon did not resemble traditional hot-air balloons. Instead, the two men rode in a pressurized capsule called the Breitling Orbiter 3.
The capsule protected them as the balloon carried them to 36,000 feet. Inside the balloon were sections containing helium gas and another pocket that could be filled with hot air.
By heating the air and dropping ballast, Piccard and Jones could control their altitude and search for wind currents that would carry them in the correct direction. The wind carried the balloon at an average of 130 miles an hour across southern Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and finally across the Atlantic and Africa.
The voyage was perilous. At night, the water in the capsule froze, and Piccard knocked away ice that clung to the balloon and threatened to drag them down. On March 20, the balloon passed Mauritania far to the south of Switzerland, but on the same line of longitude where they began the journey, and the two men celebrated.
With a sense of drama, they tried to land their craft triumphantly near the pyramids of Egypt. But rough winds forced them to land in the sands of the Sahara desert near an isolated village. Piccard and Jones were exhausted.
The team had remained aloft for 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes and covered a distance of 29,055 miles. The distance broke an endurance record and won them a $1-million prize from the Anheuser-Busch company.