Outdoors : Up, Up and Astray : Balloon Adventure Was Supposed to Take Thrill-Seeker Fossett Around the World; Instead, He Encountered a World of Trouble


By today, Steve Fossett planned to be high over India drifting toward China, halfway around the world in the first nonstop circumnavigation by balloon.

Instead, he is back home in Colorado reflecting on his two days of troubled flight, down to earth and happy to be alive.

At dawn nine days ago, Solo Challenger, Fossett’s 200-foot-tall hot air and helium balloon, was a magnificent sight as it rose silently out of the Strato Bowl, a natural crater near Rapid City, S.D., often used for balloon ascents.


So far, so. . . .

“No sooner did I get in the air than I started having equipment problems,” Fossett, 51, said. “I was fighting the equipment the entire flight. Even on the climb-out from the Strato Bowl, I didn’t have the burner power that I was used to. I was surprised how difficult it was to pull out of a descent.”

One problem was a balky autopilot system that was supposed to fire the burners automatically to heat the balloon and cause it to rise. Piloting this flying yo-yo, Fossett struggled to maintain his optimum altitude of 16,000 to 20,000 feet.

“Then I couldn’t start the propane generator and never was able to get it working, so I couldn’t recharge the batteries by that means,” he said. “I had a backup solar power system, which did work but wasn’t designed to produce all of my electrical needs. I was short of power until the end when I completely ran out.”

Fossett was able to land his misguided gas bag safely in New Brunswick, a Canadian province adjacent to Maine, hours after sending out a distress call that scared his team to death.

It was the closest call he has had in a midlife series of crises he has created for himself. He has attempted Everest, swum the English Channel, raced at LeMans and Sebring, mushed the Iditarod and sailed for several records across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In news reports, Fossett often is called a “millionaire adventurer,” which might sell him short as a dilettante with more guts and money than brains. He is a Stanford graduate who became wealthy dealing in securities out of Chicago and has been worrying his more conventional parents, Dick and Charalee, over his exploits ever since he grew up in Garden Grove.


“Now you know how I got all this gray hair,” his mother said.

Whenever Fossett decides to do something, he does his homework and seeks out experts on the subject. He is no amateur at ballooning. In 1994 he flew the Atlantic from Canada to Germany with Tim Cole, then last year did the Pacific solo from Japan for a distance record of 5,435 miles.

“People spend a lot of time watching sports,” Fossett said. “I’ve set a priority of participating in sports. I’ve spent a lot of time finding sports where I am able to be competitive.”

Of medium height, with a bald spot and a paunch, he claims he isn’t a very good athlete. Never was.

“But I’ve found that in endurance sports you can accomplish something without being an actual athlete, just by training and doing it. I’ve taken things that have appealed to me, and then I’ve set about to figure out how to do them.”

The balloon effort cost him $300,000.

“[With] the sailing and ballooning, I’ve chosen sports that fit my circumstances, but most people can do something,” Fossett said.

Fossett doesn’t seem driven by ego, but he allows friends to publicize his feats for the sake of documentation. When radio’s Paul Harvey got wind of his accumulating exploits several months ago, he called Fossett “the most humble hero since Lindbergh.”


Like the Lone Eagle, Fossett acknowledged he was “embarrassed” by all the fuss over his recent escapade.

“I was embarrassed to need to set off my EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon],” he said. “We’re supposed to be self-sufficient and not have to call upon the Coast Guard to bail us out.”

As it was, he didn’t need the Coast Guard, but it was close. He made a critical decision at about 5 a.m. EST last Wednesday. “I was south of Nova Scotia, going northeast, and I didn’t like the way the trajectory was shaping up. I’d hoped to be going more directly east. I was becoming concerned that we were being influenced by the winter storms on the northeast coast.”

Early on, Fossett hoped to use the winds of the heavy snowstorms that hit the East Coast last week to “slingshot” out into the Atlantic. Later, he realized he might wind up in Greenland “or not make land at all.”

“My batteries had fallen below their operating level, so I decided that I was not going to leave the East Coast. If I was unable to make it to land, I was going to put down as close as possible to the shore and be picked up by the Coast Guard. I set off my EPIRB so they could track me.”

Since his radios were dead, when the EPIRB went on no one knew how much trouble he was in.

“As I was coming up the Bay of Fundy trying to make land, I had an uncontrolled descent all the way from 15,000 feet to the surface,” he said. “I actually hit the water for just a few seconds. I needed to cut loose two tanks to recover my altitude.


“When I saw on my chart that I was over land, I descended down through the clouds and started looking for landing sites. I was able to pick up a hay field and did a normal gas balloon landing.

“I was quite relieved to have picked that landing site because there were a lot of forests around there . . . and the lakes, they were [frozen and] had some open water holes, and I wouldn’t want to be dragged into one of those.

“People started running up just as soon as I was on the ground. Within 15 minutes there were probably 50 reporters there.”

He had flown about 1,950 miles in a harrowing 51 hours 3 minutes. Was he ever scared?

“No, well, not in a normal sense,” he said. “More disgusted.”

Fossett isn’t deterred by failure--he says he may try it again next year.


Fossett’s Flight

The flight path of Steve Fossett’s balloon, which launched in South Dakota Jan. 8 and landed in New Brunswick Jan. 10.

Distance: 1,948 miles

Time aloft: 51 hours