Remembering Steve Fossett's 2002 Solo Round-the-World Balloon Flight
On July 2, 2002, 58-year-old millionaire Steve Fossett completed the world's first solo circumnavigation of the Earth in a hot air balloon. He piloted the Spirit of Freedom in a flight that lasted two weeks and covered more than 19,263 miles. It was his sixth attempt.
Incidentally, Fossett's balloon trip was even more notable if you tacked on some qualifiers. It was the first circumnavigation of the Earth in any sort of vehicle that was aerial, uninterrupted, unrefueled, and solo. The use of a balloon made this feat somewhat more practical than using a fixed-wing aircraft with its generally higher fuel demands...but then Fossett broke the fixed-wing record too in 2005, when he did the same thing in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer.
Fossett had been setting records for a while. He held a pile of records related to circumnavigating the Earth via plane and boat. He was into gliders, skiing, mountain climbing, dogsled racing, car racing, you name it. He even swam the English channel in the mid-'80s.
When Fossett crossed the finish line of his historical balloon flight, he wasn't quite done. He was drifting over Australia, sorting out where to land safely. So the moment he broke the record, he was alone in his balloon, communicating via radio with his team on the ground.
Eventually Fossett landed in Queensland, Australia (having taken off from Northam two weeks before). He celebrated with a few cans of Bud Light, but not because champagne was too high-class—in fact, the entire trip was prominently sponsored by Bud Light, and Fossett carried several bottles with him around the world. (Inside the balloon, prominent Bud Light branding was everywhere.) Fossett's shrewd use of such endorsements made the trip relatively inexpensive, which was frankly necessary given that he only achieved his goal on the sixth try.
That sixth attempt was successful in part due to favorable weather, and in part due to the choice of a Southern Hemisphere route. Fossett was concerned about drifting into hostile airspace in the Northern Hemisphere (which had happened on previous attempts). With fewer individual nations to traverse (and a whole lot of ocean) in the south, Fossett successfully avoided that problem this time. Favorable winds pushed him along at speeds near 200 mph at times, and in fact he set various balloon flight speed records along the way.
During the flight, Fossett used a bucket as a toilet, ate survival rations, and brought canisters of oxygen to aid breathing at altitude. It was by no means an easy trip, especially for a man pushing 60. Adventurer Steve Fossett achieved his goal, and went on to continue setting records until his death. He died on Labor Day in 2007 in the Sierra Nevada, flying a light aircraft.
For a history of Fossett and his ballooning records, check out this three-part documentary: