Never mind that a hot air balloon can’t be steered, that it relies on jet streams like surfers rely on ocean waves — Swiss physician and pilot Bertrand Piccard knew circumnavigating the globe by balloon couldn’t be left to the winds of chance. Though he’d failed twice already, Piccard was determined to stake his claim in a family legacy of exploration firsts. His father Jacques had reached the deepest point on the planet and his grandfather Auguste had been the first human to reach the stratosphere.
Armed with meteorological calculations and an uncompromising belief in his destiny, Bertrand Piccard took off into a dark winter’s sky in the Swiss Alps on the Breitling Orbiter 3, accompanied by English balloon instructor Brian Jones. A speck on the world map, the duo flew east over Italy, France, Mauritania and beyond above Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India and across China and Japan, before they found themselves looking down at the clouds above the Pacific Ocean.
It was here that the winds that had yet carried them tens of thousands of miles stilled. Piccard and Jones had fuel to keep them at bay but without wind, they could go nowhere but down. In the negative 60-degree chill in the stratosphere, heavy icicles gathered on the gondola’s base, which Jones had shear off with an axe while they sank farther down, nearing the water. When Piccard wasn’t busy calculating the altitude they’d have to reach to catch a jet stream, he had taken to playing songs by Leonard Cohen to lull him to sleep.
A few days later, a miraculous surge of wind pushed them across Mexico and Central America. They duo drifted toward the bright Atlantic Ocean, confident that destiny would take its rightful course. And it did. On March 20, 1999, 20 days after they departed, Piccard and Jones crossed Mauritania, officially circumnavigating the earth, setting a slew of world records, and promising them a $1 million prize. To celebrate, they delayed their arrival by one day in favor of drifting toward Egypt, to land among the great Pyramids of Giza, as if it was meant to be.