Twenty years since Breitling Orbiter 3 became the first balloon to circle the globe without refueling, Bertrand Piccard appeared at the Baselworld 2019 show in Switzerland in March to celebrate the achievement again, and the fact that four of the records he set with copilot Briton Brian Jones, still stand.
Piccard and Jones took off from the Swiss ski village of Château d’Oex on March 1, 1999, and ended in Egypt on March 21—taking in Asia, the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and the Atlantic Ocean on the way. The 20-day journey (actually 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes) saw the team achieve success after two earlier attempts ended in failure.
All three Breitling Orbiters were Rozier balloons (consisting of a helium cell surrounded by hot air) made by Cameron Balloons. Orbiter 3 stood 55m high when inflated.
Speaking recently at Baselworld on the pressure to succeed, Piccard reflected, “There was Steve Fossett, Richard Branson, seven other teams competing [racing to become first to fly around the world in a balloon]. By March 1999 we thought we had missed our final window of opportunity as the jet streams weren’t supposed to last that long.
“Fifteen people started to discuss [the risks] and weren’t in favor of flying but the weatherman said the weather was good. We said if everyone agrees, we go. It was then unanimous and we went for it.
“On March 17  above Mexico we had one-quarter of the world to overfly with one-eighth of the fuel remaining, and we’d just lost the jet stream. So I thought we were going to fail. Our speed dropped and the direction was bad. I pushed the [balloon] as high as I could, using a lot of fuel. Suddenly we had one degree left, two degrees left—the direction changed by 25 degrees in the last 100 feet that the balloon could reach!” The rest is history.
Piccard concluded, “There would have been no Solar Impulse without the Global Orbiter. [On the latter] we had 3,700 kg of liquid propane and landed with 40 kilograms—almost nothing—which is when I realized the only limitation is fuel. So Solar Impulse is the first aeroplane with potentially perpetual endurance.”
Orbiter 3 is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Baselworld is one of the world’s leading shows for wristwatches and jewelry and is held in the Swiss city of Basel every spring.