National Geographic : 1999 Sep
like grandson that he was unable to descend because of a release-valve cord that had become tangled. He had to wait for the night to cool his balloon in order to get back to Earth. For Brian and me, crossing the Alps was slow but wonderful. We had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. That evening, with the sun setting over the C6te d'Azur, we enjoyed a meal of emu steaks, rice, and vegetables, reheated in plastic bags in the kettle. The following afternoon we passed Almeria, Spain, where Colin Prescot and Andy Elson had launched Cable & Wireless two weeks before on their own round-the world attempt. We had no hope of catching up with them though, since they were already over Myanmar 6,000 miles away. Now, on the fifth day of our flight, my face is glued to the porthole as we soar over Libya. I have begun to like this desert, which 70 years ago was crossed by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Jean Mermoz, Henri Gui llaumet, and the other pilots of the French Aeropostale whose works I read when I was a child. Suddenly the satellite fax light blinks, and a message from our control center in Geneva appears on the computer's screen. "Our current speed of 85 miles an hour is too fast. The stream is going to take us north of the Himalaya. Let's descend to slow down and take a more southern route." Our friends in the control center have such team spirit that their messages are often written in the first person. They are all flying with us, from Alan Noble, the flight director, on down. Even though we are still four days from China, Alan is already worried. He knows we must cross the border into China at exactly the right place. Thanks to our new altitude, we drift toward southern Egypt, over Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, then India and Bangladesh, assist ed from afar by Swiss air traffic controllers, who help us gain access to forbidden areas. Not all the countries we fly over understand our goal, as shown by this radio exchange between Brian and the Burmese authorities: "This is Rangoon control. What are your departure and landing points?" "HB-BRA, departed from Switzerland, intention to land somewhere in Africa." "If you're going from Switzerland to Africa, what in the hell are you doing in Burma?" Each day Brian and I take eight-hour shifts in the pilot's seat. While one of us flies the balloon, the other crawls beneath the covers in the bunk to sleep. We spend the rest of the time together, plotting our JCAm-In'AI,UIJ LUY,LCtlILINIiJA In a sheltered valley in the Swiss Alps the 180-foot-tall balloon lifts off from the snow-covered ground in the village of Chateau-d'Oex at 9:05 a.m. local time on March 1, 1999. Weeks earlier the launch had been delayed until Swiss diplomats could obtain permission for the balloon to cross China. AROUND AT LAST!