Century In Review: October 2003

 - October 8, 2007, 9:11 AM

Civil aircraft in the 1990s didn’t look radically different from those of the previous 20 years but, as had happened in the previous decade, they were different beneath the familiar skin. Like the 1980s, the economy of the 1990s got off to a rough start, but this last decade of the millennium picked up a spectacular head of steam midway through its 10-year run.

Business aviation in particular grew by leaps and bounds as the airplanes offered were made ever more capable. The 1990s were the decade of the Global Express, Gulfstream V and Boeing Business Jet–all memorable for offering range of 6,000 nm and, in the case of the BBJ, a quantum leap in the epitome of luxury: space, filled with all the creature comforts and electronic communication (including satcom) and entertainment gadgets anyone could want. Bedroom suites with showers had previously been the preserve of Middle Eastern potentates’ converted widebody jetliners (the capacious 747 in particular) but by launching a business-jet version of the 737NG jetliner Boeing and General Electric brought this level of comfort and business utility to a broader market–considerably broader, in fact, than the two companies dreamed of when they gave the project the green light based on expectations of selling fewer than 10 aircraft a year.

Globalization of business accelerated and vast fortunes were made in the second half of the 1990s, and the long-legged, big business jets could not have come along at a better time. It was a heady era when, for fabulously wealthy Internet entrepreneurs, a Learjet just didn’t cut it as the choice for first business jet. These guys were signing for Challengers, Gulfstreams, Falcons and Globals as their entrée to the rarefied world of private jets, prompting Gulfstream and Dassault each to explore the possibilities of taking the next big step and developing a supersonic business jet.

Of course, this burgeoning demand was not sustainable, and it all came to, if not a screeching halt, at least a crashing morning-after headache early in the new millennium. Manufacturers’ backlogs have shrunk and the SSBJ remains no more than an intriguing but remote possibility, with indications that business-aviation users care more about getting there in extreme comfort than in three-hour dashes in a small cabin.

Airbus, originator of fly-by-wire flight controls for the civil fleet, tightened its grip on the airliner market, but Boeing innovated too, designing the 777 twinjet solely
by computer. Southwest Airlines’ ascent changed the business model for the airline industry by taking its no-frills, cheap-seat service nationwide, giving the major carriers sweats that have since turned into palpitations and, in some cases, fiscal coronaries.

The military side of aviation drew more attention in the 1990s than it had in a while when stealth aircraft–a subject of speculation by aviation pundits during the 1980s–were not only acknowledged to exist but were shown in action above Iraq as Operation Desert Storm unfolded. Unlike earlier military advances, stealth held no application for commercial aviation, but the sheer trickiness of making it work gave it a certain appeal that missiles and afterburners somehow had not matched.

There was more military-inspired mystery in the 1990s with reports of strange sightings and noises in Western U.S. skies around the time the USAF retired the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft. There was just something fishy about the Air Force’s saying that it was retiring the Blackbirds because satellites could do the job more efficiently, particularly when taken in conjunction with the reports of “doughnuts on a rope” contrail sightings and unusual propulsion noises high in the Western skies. Pundits referred to the mysterious craft as Project Aurora but were never able to confirm if the Air Force was operating or testing a replacement for the aging SR-71. Even the pilot’s manual for the SR-71 was declassified and, thick as a major-market Yellow Pages, put in print by a Midwestern publishing house, which peddled the tome for a cover price of $100 in 1992.

Just as Voyager’s unrefueled flight around the world stood as the preeminent human achievement in aviation in the 1980s, it was a circumglobal flight that took that distinction in the 1990s too. In March 1999, Dr. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones floated around the world in 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes aboard the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, completing what they termed “the last great aeronautical adventure” and beating a number of equally tenacious but unsuccessful contenders, including Sir Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand. After five attempts, Steve Fossett was ultimately successful when he completed the first solo circumglobal balloon flight on July 2, 2002.

But Piccard and Jones were first. In many ways, the Breitling Orbiter 3 was an atmospheric spacecraft. It was pressurized, but not in traditional airplane fashion. Dangling below the capsule was what NASA would call a solar array to recharge the craft’s electrical supply. And the two crew lived in a sealed gondola every bit as confining and extra-terrestrial as a space capsule.

The capsule was pressurized not by bleed air from a turbofan compressor, a la bizjet, or (the method chosen by erstwhile rivals Branson and Lindstrand in their Virgin Global Challenger) by a recip-engine-driven pump on the roof, but simply by trapping the atmospheric pressure of low-altitude flight. Down low, they sealed the capsule tight as a drum before starting to climb, maintaining a 7.5-psi differential. As in a manned spacecraft, the trapped capsule air was conditioned throughout the mission by carbon-dioxide-hungry lithium filters, odor-eating charcoal filters and, for replenishment of the vital gases, the evaporation of liquid oxygen and nitrogen–a technique invented by Piccard’s grandfather, Auguste. (It was Auguste who devised not only the first pressurized cabin, making him the first man to ascend into the stratosphere, but also the bathyscaphe, a submarine that Bertrand’s father, Jacques, took down to 35,815 feet, the deepest point on the globe.) Piccard said this method of pressurization saved a huge amount of fuel–fuel that could be devoted to warming the helium and preserving its lifting powers after the sun had set.

While luck clearly played a pivotal role in the success of the Breitling Orbiter 3, technology and diplomacy also tipped the balance in favor of Piccard and Jones. The sum of the Orbiter 3’s distinctions from its competitors was significant. Insulation around the primary helium segment of the envelope further contributed to fuel savings, but in the latter stages of the flight fuel did indeed become critical, even with the added efficiencies.

For the first third of the almost 20-day flight, which launched on March 1 from a chateau in the Swiss Alps, Piccard and Jones ate well on fresh food, including fish and emu steaks. As the perishables dwindled, the menu withered to veggie steaks, mashed potato and rice, and for the second half of the flight the rations consisted primarily of dehydrated food.

Apart from the physical demands of a nearly three-week isolation seven miles above the surface, the mental strain took its toll. Think back to what you were doing three weeks ago, and it will likely seem quite a while. Now imagine spending those three weeks with one other person in what was essentially a 20-ft-long by 8-ft-high sealed tank. But what a view!

“Actually,” Piccard said, “we completely lost all sense of time. The three weeks were short for us, although I know they were a long time for the ground crew.”

Piccard, a psychiatrist by profession, hit his mental doldrums over Mexico, between the two big ocean crossings. Communications had been knocked out for four
days over the Pacific as the balloon envelope shielded the satcom antenna from the Inmarsat satellite; now the heating had failed, plunging the temperature in the capsule to -2 degrees C and freezing all the water on board; and to make matters still more depressing, the jet stream had taken a useless turn to the south and fuel consumption had risen alarmingly.

Unable to heal himself of the blues, Piccard submitted to some mental therapy over the satcom from a friend and perked up for the final leg. Even over the Pacific the pilots, doubtful of the fuel supply, had pitched out most of the remaining food and sandbags to save weight.

The theoretical endurance of the Orbiter 3 was 24 days, but Piccard had decided before launching that if the projected endurance of the flight at liftoff time had been
more than 16 days, he would veto takeoff. As it turned out, when they landed in the desert sands of Egypt after almost 20 days of flying, all but less than half of one of the 32 titanium propane tanks had been expended. The liquid-oxygen supply fared much better, with 60 percent remaining on landing.

At a New York luncheon 17 days after their landing, Piccard didn’t get much time to eat, seated as he was at a table of writers.
A sample of the questions:
What was your greatest fear? “I was very confident about our lives, but I was afraid to fail. It was our last chance with Breitling, and it was the last chance to catch the jet stream this winter. But we had to accept the possibility of failing, otherwise we could never have launched. The Gulf of Mexico turned out to be the most worrisome phase. We had too much carbon dioxide in the capsule, it was very cold, and the air was so dry.”

Would you do it again? “Never. It would kill the magic. We would be expected to do it faster. It doesn’t get any easier next time just because someone has done it.”

To what do you attribute your success where so many others failed? “Apart from our balloon, we had two weather people, where the other attempts all relied on just one. Our two weather people were able to compare their [atmospheric] models and argue the best course. Branson’s weather man on Christmas Day kept them too high, in a strong wind that took them to Hawaii rather than lower in a weaker wind that would have taken them to the U.S.” For Piccard and Jones the winds were all stronger than forecast, peaking at 131 knots over the Sahara. Over the Atlantic they were 80 knots versus the forecast 40 knots.

“I took the time to visit the Chinese authorities in person before our flight, where others relied on impersonal diplomatic efforts. I am sure that helped us with the overflight permission. Luck, fate, destiny, God–call it what you will, but we had that too.”

What was your personal motivation? “It was the last great aeronautical adventure, and a new way to use technology in harmony with nature, not fighting it. Ballooning is a symbol of human adventure because you are always confronting the unknown.”

What about that view? “The Pacific was so big it really did seem flat. The worst desert is not sand but water. The desert is not desert. It is ever changing, with
a fascinating shifting of shape and light. I was also struck by the irony of our harmonious capsule–Brian and I never once exchanged harsh words–floating over so much suffering and bad luck. The flight increased our respect for life, for everything that is alive on this planet.”