NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
7 Nov 1998
Stereo=1; Split track
NPR/NGS Geographic Century
Steve Fossett w/ Alex Chadwick
Nov./98 -- "lighter than air"
In your thinking about how you were going to approach your great ballooning attempts, did you go back in history and look at what other people had done?
Steve Fosset [SF] 1:12
Not very much. I'm aware of some of the history. And then the most recent thing that led into the around-the-world flight was the completion of the transatlantic flight in 1978 by...and then once an ocean crossing had been done, then people started to think, well how can a flight around the world be done?
...which seems to me utterly impossible....I guess if you look at the accomplishment of experience it is impossible because no one has achieved it. I mean how do you know it's impossible?
It's not impossible. It's just more difficult than we had presumed. Starting in the early attempts it was actually felt it was possible, after the first ocean crossings had been done. They started off rather optimistically to do around the world projects, and they weren't successful. And then as we came into the last four year period there have been a number of teams set up to do around the world attempts and each year we thought, it's likely someone will make it and each year we found out it was more difficult than we thought. But we're getting closer and we really do believe that it's possible to do this around the world mission and I believe it will be done, probably within the next two years.
Aren't you setting out on an expedition next month?
Yes, I'll be flying with Richard Branson's team...and we'll fly from Morocco in this around-the-world attempt.
Now, you and Mr. Branson had been in somewhat of a competition and now here you are flying together. How did that come about?
It's been a very friendly competition and he's helped me at certain times, like when I was having trouble getting permission from Libya...so the competition to be the first to fly around the world is actually being conducted with a great sense of sportsmanship. And we all know eachother. I mean I know substantially all the pilots in this competition.
How is it that you all have decided to join forces though?
In my last flight, in the Southern Hemisphere in August and I went down in the Coral Sea, and I lost all my equipment. Well, the season for the northern hemisphere is Dec. and Jan this year and I wouldn't have had time to rebuild a new set of equipment to take on the N. Hemisphere. And so Richard Branson called me on a timely basis, while I was still on the water...on this rescue, and invited me to come and fly with his team. And I did a little research on it and decided that this was a really strong team with a strong chance of success and decided to accept his invitation.
Provide a description of how you went into the Coral Sea. A lot of people thought that you were going to make this around-the-world flight and then all of a sudden you developed problems and you went down.
I thought I was going to make it too. We were having some difficulty with routing over Australia, but once leaving the coast of Australia, I thought I had a good clear shot to continue on to finish in Argentina...there was one small barrier and that was there was a line of thunderstorms 500 miles off the coast of Australia. But they only reached up to, at the maximum 30,000 ft, and I was already flying at 29,000 ft and I thought it would be highly coincidental to hit one of the thunderstorm heads. I was more likely to go between them. And I didn't think it would be a problem. I was actually asleep and an alarm went off indicating that my balloon had gone into a 500 mile/minute descent. I jumped out of the sleeping bag, fired the burners and tried to stabilize the balloon. It started climbing and then it went back into a descent again. I fired the burners more and went into a climb. On that climb, the climb was too fast and the balloon ruptured. I was in a free fall to the surface from there.
How far did you fall?
You fell 29,000 feet in the gondola with the balloon attached?
The balloon was streaming and was falling at a rate...around 3500 ft/minute. And I believe that by turning the burners on full-blast I was able to slow the descent of the balloon to around 2500 ft/minute by the time I hit the surface.
That's awful fast.
If I had to estimate that I was falling at about 5 floors/second. I was coming down and I was going to hit the surface very hard.
Did you think you were going to die?
I did. I was working on this problem, you know firing up the burners, actually evaluated the situation and said out loud, I'm going to die. It was rather apparent because we thought that the maximum impact that you could withstand on a balloon crash was 2000 ft/minute and I was falling significantly faster than that.
How much time did you have to figure this out?
it's a long time. I had about 9 minutes. So I was able to work on this problem as I was falling. 29,000 feet is a long way. I mean I also prepared the capsule for ditching...and as I got close, in the final minute of the fall I cut away 6 tanks around the capsule, releasing an enormous amount of weight, and that slowed the capsule down to 2500 ft/minute that I eventually hit the surface.
So you were keeping your wits about you and you didn't panic and say I'm going to curl up in a ball and wait for the moment. I mean you were trying to think your way out of the situation.
It wasn't a panicky situation. I mean there was enough time to rationally work on this. And that's what I was doing, just working on the problem. And happily I did everything right, because if I hadn't done everything right, I wouldn't be here to tell you about it.
You're traveling in an open gondola, aren't you?
It's an enclosed capsule that I'm in with a bubble-top hatch that I can open up and come outside and change fuel tanks and work on the equipment. But it's unpressurized, so I wear an oxygen mask....always above 24,000 feet.
Does it have shock absorbers on the bottom? I mean when it hits, what happens?
Well I was hitting water, and I think it helped that I was blowing fast in the thunderstorm so I hit it at an angle rather than straight down. So the balloon and capsule dragged in the water and turned upside down and filled half-full with water and that's when my next problem arose.
What do I do now?
So there was the additional problem of the fuel tanks still burning...it was burning through the capsule and creating a resin smoke in the capsule. So I had to get out of there fast. I had decided that what I really needed was a...satellite rescue beacon and I needed a life raft. So I got those two things in each hand and dove feet-first out the capsule, got to the outside, and...opened the life raft and climbed in and then I believed that it was going to be O.K.
Was it daytime or nighttime when this happened?
It was middle of the night. Local time, 1 in the morning.
So you couldn't see the surface of the ocean as you were approaching it?
But you were watching an altimeter, you knew when you were going to hit?
I was watching a barometer which in effect tells you the altitude. And when the barometer is at 1013 Mb you're supposed to be at the surface. So I watched the barometer spinning down to reach that 1013, but because of the high pressure it didn't occur there. So I watched it get down to 1034 Mb before it actually hit the surface.
Given this incredible story that you've just told us, why would you go back in a balloon next month and attempt this feat again?
It was an unfortunate circumstance and I can't afford to take this much risk every year, or I won't be around very long. On the other hand we've learned our lesson from this incident and we know how to avoid a lot of the other risks. And so I think it's realistic to think that I could fly safely in the future. It is a major objective. It's something that I want to do, to make the first flight around the world by balloon. If successful it'll be a significant achievement in aviation history and I think in the history of exploration in general.
This is something that has not been done. It's the oldest form of aviation and yet the only form of aviation that hasn't had a successful around the world flight. There aren't very many major goals in exploration that haven't been done on earth and this is certainly one of them. I mean to make a trip around the world in a way that no one has approached it before. So this really energizes me to think about the prospect of being successful at this. If successful I'd just be very satisfied and pleased with it the rest of my life.
Balloons were used back in the 30s to do some early research on atmospherics, do you know anything about the explorers using balloons back then?
Yes, there are some flights, the explorer 2 flight...that flew up to about 72,000 feet. This was the early research into flying at high altitude in a pressurized capsule that needed to be solved. It was a precursor to our space flight. I was very much aware of this when I chose the same site that that balloon flew from...for one of my around-the-world attempts.
What do you suppose it was like going up in a balloon back then, I don't know what it would compare like to your own circumstances?
They had some serious dramas also. They had a fall they had a very difficult arresting on one of their flights and were lucky to live. So this was certainly an adventure for them but for different reasons.
Why is it that a balloon begins to descend very rapidly?
A balloon will descend if the gas inside of it has cooled for instance...and then of course, if you have a leak, or in the case of my last flight, a very big leak.
When you were going down in that thunderstorm initially, before you had ruptured the balloon, it was because the storm had cooled the gas in the balloon, or are there down drafts that can pull it down?
I've flown over thunderstorms before, and I've always felt that if I could just skim the top of them that's good enough. But what happened this time was that the warm air rising in the thunderstorm created an area of warm air surrounding the balloon as I flew over, making the balloon seem cooler, and that's what started the descent. While flying close to the top of the storm, disasters result because while having the descent initiated I went into the thunderstorm, and once in the storm the violent winds were carrying me up and down and resulted in the ultimate rupture of the balloon.
While this was going on, did you understand the forces that were at play?
Well I understood the rising and falling columns of air within the storm, but it was after the event was over that I realized the mistake that I had made by flying close to the tops of the thunderstorms.
You were spotted and a ship came and picked you up and you're on board the ship, going back to Australia, and I guess it didn't take you very long to get back there, a couple of days or something?
Yes, it's three days by ship.
On this trip, Richard Branson manages to reach you by telephone, you couldn't have been expecting a call from him I think.
It didn't surprise me to receive a call from him. We do communicate with eachother as balloonists. I know him and consider him to be a friend and so it wasn't surprising to receive his call. I was a bit surprised by what he had to say. He said, well Steve I don't want to talk about your flight, I've read all about it, but I do want to do is ask you come and be one of the pilots on my flight. So that was a very interesting proposal, especially since I had just lost all of my equipment. And I waited until I got back to the States, did a little research on the project, and decided that they have a very good chance of success and then accepted his invitation to be one of the pilots.
How does his balloon differ from yours.
It's very big. It's 1,200,000 cubic feet of helium. It's a pressurized capsule with a life support system inside the pressurized capsule. And a total of 3 pilots. It's very sophisticated, it has an aircraft pressurization system, and a lot of other original avionics in the system. I think it's very fascinating to learn this type of system. It's very different from what I've done before.
Are you going to have to train for it or how will you all get this project up and running?
Yes, I am training. We were testing just last week in Reno, Nevada, and we'll do some more training in...I do a lot of studying. But I bring with me some benefits to the team, because this is a Rosier (?) balloon, which is a combination of a hot air balloon and a gas balloon. And this is what I've flown and I have more experience than anyone in this type of balloon. So I bring with me the flight characteristics of this type of balloon.
You are the single most experienced pilot in the world for this type of balloon?
For this type of balloon, yes.
Are there practical payoffs for ballooning?
There may be. We are inventing a lot of new things. A member of my team, Bruce Comstock, invented the first working auto-pilot for balloons. We're having to come up with the solutions because we're doing something that's never been done before. I don't know whether this will have commercial implications, it may, some of the things we're figuring out. But we're not really looking at the commercial benefits of this. This is exploration and this is adventure. We're doing it for the adventure. And for that experience and to generate interest in adventure activities by all who watch this. So we're not measuring this with dollar signs and practicality for the future.
Will you have a radio on board or some way, how will you communicate with the outside world?
I communicate both as a standard aircraft with standard air-traffic control, and then I have another set of communications equipment which is satellite communications which we use to communicate with the mission control center where the scientists are evaluating what's happening with the balloon system. And where the meteorologist is advising as to flight level and conditions to be found. And then there's also a satellite telephone system which does allow for some communication by telephone.
I hope you would consider accepting a call from Radio Expeditions somewhere along your flight path to talk to our listeners so we could follow your adventure. We love bringing these adventure stories to the people, if we can.
It's a fascinating experience to be flying in a balloon. to be flying over an ocean. I mean you marvel at this while you're doing it. To think that you're moving along at let's say, 100 miles/hr, crossing an ocean in a balloon. It's a fascinating experience and it's fun to relate that to other people.
How does the experience of traveling in a balloon differ from traveling in an airplane? What does it feel like and what does it look like from up there?
I suppose the view isn't that different than what an airplane view would be, because we're flying at similar altitudes of commercial airliners. But you're just more aware of the difference because you're moving more slowly and you're able to focus on the train and it's just more of a marvel that you're there and you're making these long-distance crossings, whether it's an ocean or across a continent.
When you've done your circumnavigation will you stop flying?
Probably, because I've been ballooning for the adventure and the exploration. So I've come in with a very specific objective. I started ballooning only 5 1/2 years ago. And the reason I started getting my pilot's license in balloons was to take on an around-the-world project, so if I complete that I probably won't continue ballooning and will move onto some other project.
You're also an ocean racer, sailing racer, and cars?
Well I'm not currently driving race cars. I used to do endurance races like 24 hours at Daytona, 24 hours...love to drive cars, but my current activity is really focusing on sailing and I expect to be really active in ocean sailing and I want to make an around-the-world sailing trip in the year 2000.
Wow. Thank you very much for speaking with us. Oh, what does it sound like floating in a balloon, sailing along?
One of the very nice things about this is that it's quiet, it's very serene, when you're traveling in a balloon. With the exception of the burners, and the burners will fire once every six seconds or once every 15 seconds and you have the blast of the burner. But outside of that it's very quiet and very peaceful and you're very relaxed when you're up there flying in a balloon.
Oh yes, it's very relaxing. The pace of balloon flight is a proper pace. You have time to think about each of your navigation steps, you have time to think about the next step, like changing a fuel tank. You can plan all this out. It's very comfortable because you have the proper amount of time to do the right thing as far as piloting the balloon.
Well good luck with your adventure....how should we identify you?
Steve Fosset and I'm an adventurer....I'm not to be described as a millionaire. Somehow the Associate Press got that in their database and they keep on calling me millionaire Steve Fosset and this isn't a very flattering description, so I prefer to be called adventurer Steve Fosset.
Ambi 26:05 - 26:53
recording of the room Fosset was interviewed in.
Could we just ask about this sailboat race? So you're building a Catamaran (?).
Yes, I'm building a very large Catamaran, it's over 100 ft, and it'll be launched in Auckland, New Zealand in December.
And this is for, there will be a special around-the-world race in the year 2000? Is this a millennium race of some sort?
Yes, a millennium race. It's called The Race and it starts Dec. 31st in the year 2000. And it's unlimited, you can bring the largest, fastest sailboat you want. And undoubtedly it'll be the fastest race around the world.
How long do you think it'll take you?
The record for sailing around the world is just over 71 days, and the boat we're building should be able to do it in just about 65 days.
Wow. How fast will that sailboat go?
The max. speed of the boat will be 40 knots...yes it'll be awesome...multi-hulls (?) are much faster than mono-hull sailboats. And we're going to carry a lot of sail area and be able to sail fast.
You know, somebody, not very long ago, took the record in a mono-hull going from New York to England. And they said they did it in a mono-hull because they could get more sail on it...
Yes this record that was just set. They sailed a mono-hull from NY to England in just under 9 days. And this is the official record for mono-hulls. The multi-hull sailboat record from NY to England is 6 days and 13 hours, so multi-hulls are still faster.
How big is your crew going to be on this boat?
This boat will have a crew of 8. It varies, I do multi-hull sailing now and sometimes I sail alone. For instance I've sailed across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans single-handedly.
In a race I mean you've got to have a crew...you'd want to have a crew, that's a helluva boat.
yes, it's, everything is very strong and very heavy in a 100 ft boat and you need a lot of crew to grind the winches, so we'll make good use of all our crew members.
Is this around the world with no stops?
So you don't pull into port anywhere?
This will be a non-stop race.
(there's some talking and Carolyn asks to clarify his Dec. 31st of the year 2000, making sure that he meant the year 2000 and not the year 1999. He says that it's the year 2000)
Aren't you worried about, you say this is the biggest boat, but what if someone else, I bet you there are other crews building boats at the same time.
Yes others plan to build very large multi-hulls which would be larger than the one that we're building. But then there's the handling of the boat, I mean, we've taken a major increment in the power and performance of a sailboat. If we had taken two increments we might find that we'd break the boat, break the mast or just be unable to handle the boat. So we've decided on this approach and it will be faster than anything that's been built before, but it is possible that someone will build something that is faster.
You actually, as an adventurer as an expeditioner, you're style in terms of equipment is fairly modest, that is you don't build the biggest, or the most complicated. You tend to like things that are, at least as far as ballooning goes, things that are well-built, smart and you think you gain some maneuverability. Is that your style? Or maybe this boat is that kind of representation, you could make it bigger, you could make it more complicated, but...
The greatest challenge in endurance events is being able to finish. I have generally chosen more simplified equipment in ballooning, choosing an unpressurized capsule to avoid the complexities in pressurized capsules. In sailing I haven't gone to the maximum size possible because I want to have the reliability of the equipment so that I can finish the event. And this is what I'm trying to do. By finishing either be first or the fastest.
Would you turn more easily in a multi-hull?
The dangers in multi-hull sailing are very different than in mono-hull. Mono-hulls have their risks, for instance if a mono-hull were to lose its keel, which has happened in a number of mono-hull races, they can turn upside down and possibly sink. A multi-hull can flip and go upside down, but because they have no keel and no lead ballast, a multi-hull won't sink. But once you're upside down you can't get it back rightside up and you're living in an upside down boat until you're rescued.
But you know that eventually they'll find you, you're on a 100 ft boat. Thank you.