A great adventure, but does this rank as another giant leap for mankind?

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The Independent Online
MARIE ANTOINETTE called it "the sport of gods" and certainly the challenge of ballooning around the world has defeated many humans. When Brian Jones of Britain and his Swiss co-pilot Bertrand Piccard landed yesterday in Egypt after circling the earth, they had completed one of the last great adventures.

Of course, circumnavigation of the globe is nothing new. Magellan sailed around the world in the 16th century. The first plane completed the journey non-stop in 1949. These days you can do the trip on a tourist ticket for less than a couple of thousand pounds.

Yet this ballooning dream, born in the Romantic era, dramatised by Jules Verne and turned into an obsession by Richard Branson has been gripping.

At first sight, it is hard to fathom this fascination with the success of the British-built Breitling Orbiter 3. Especially at the end of a century that has seen so many startling achievements: the exploration of the South and North Poles, the conquering of Everest, the breaking of the four-minute mile, the development of air flight, then space travel.

Against all this, flying balloons around the world seems like post-modern trivia, a bit of fin de siecle fun without real foundation. Indeed one suspects that the very positioning of this latest triumph, at the end of a millennium that has left so little to "conquer", may explain a spurious prominence.

Yet a closer look shows that the journey will rightly be remembered as an extraordinary world first. These two Europeans have established the record for the longest aerial flight in history: 20 days. As Mr Branson, their most famous rival for this title, has said, 15 years ago the furthest a hot-air balloon had travelled was 600 miles. So the flight is a remarkable technical development, reflecting progress in weather forecasting, satellite technology and the design of balloons.

The pilots also risked their lives: deaths have been frequent in long- distance ballooning. Yes, the pair were backed by a considerable team, tracking their every move with the latest technology. But just as the film Apollo 13 makes clear about travel in the Seventies to the Moon, the resources available were inadequate to the challenge.

The pair spent their time in a capsule only 17ft long and less than 10ft wide, containing bunks, a kitchen area, a toilet and a heater. At one stage the two men were in danger of carbon dioxide poisoning; at another, they encountered freezing conditions, requiringPiccard to climb out of the capsule and hack off three-feet long icicles. At the very end, there was great concern that they might crash in the West African desert.

All this puts them in the same league as, say, Captain Webb when in 1875 he was the first to swim the Channel. After all, endurance in the face of suffering is in itself enough to win a place in history: that is why Captain Scott is remembered even though he reached the South Pole after Roald Amundsen.

Circling the world by balloon is also important for parochial, patriotic reasons: because a Briton was in the basket sending out a message that Britain's buccaneering tradition survives. Similar significance was attached to beating the four-minute mile in 1954, says the record breaker, Sir Roger Bannister. "We had won the war, but seemed to have lost in every other way. That record showed the world we were still a force to be reckoned with."

That said, travelling around the world by balloon does not herald any wonderful technological breakthrough to benefit humankind. There will be none of the spin-offs springing from going to the Moon or the first great aircraft journeys.

In this sense, the achievement is not of historical significance. It recalls the experience of Richard Noble's team, whose Thrust supersonic car beat the sound barrier in October 1997. "I don't think we ever thought we would help anyone trying to cope with the M25," said Mr Noble yesterday. "But we still had more than 50 million people visiting our website following our progress."

"We all need to be inspired and enlightened by such achievements. It encourages the next generation to go on to greater things."

Ironically, the weekend's success was interesting precisely because ballooning remains primitive. That also made this outmoded form of transport curiously contemporary. Instead of being about conquering nature in the style of an imperial age, this adventure was about harnessing the earth's forces in a more harmonious, Nineties' manner.

Most people could also imagine that maybe it could have been them flying at 35,000ft above the earth in a tiny capsule, prey to the elements, sailing across a giant planet. After all, Brian Jones was only a last minute choice for the flight.

The goals of the adventure were also unusually clear for a world audience. Such clarity, appealing to the public imagination, is now rare for explorers and adventurers.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes recalls with sadness his return in 1982 from successfully completing the first circumpolar navigation of the earth. He had trekked 130,000 miles from Greenwich, spent three years travelling and become, with his colleague, the first person to go to the South and North Poles in one trip. Yet, when he got back to Greenwich, his arrival was overshadowed by the return of soldiers from the Falklands.

Sir Ranulph's experience demonstrates how once the big success is recorded in a field, the public loses interest and acknowledgement comes only from aficionados. Thus, in 1975, Sir Chris Bonington led a brave and successful attempt on the steepest approach to Everest. But the adventure never had the huge appeal of the first ascent in 1952 when Sir Edmund Hillary famously "knocked the bastard off".

The same will now be true for ballooning. There will be more races, more dicing with death, but the big race between Mr Branson, the Breitling Orbiter III and others is over. There may eventually be, suggests Sir Ranulph Fiennes, an attempt to follow his example of a circumpolar journey. But the only balloon journeys which will again truly capture public attention will be the solo trips, like Reinhold Messner's solo ascent of Everest in 1981, unaided by oxygen.

Are there, then, any great world firsts to be achieved after this weekend? Space travel is inevitably the final frontier. But what about here on earth? The great adventures will be under the sea, predicts Sir Chris Bonington, while Richard Noble points to other frontiers. "There will be breaking the sound barrier on water, running the three-minute mile, reaching a 1,000 miles an hour on land and 500 miles an hour in a wheel- driven vehicle."

So there are still many challenges ahead, although few offer the romance of flying around the world by balloon in a quarter of the time even Jules Verne dared imagine.

The Expert


Sir Roger Bannister, who ran first mile under four minutes in 1954

"I see this wonderful success as achieved for glory but not as vainglorious. It is part of continual aspiring that characterises the human race and makes us different from animals. We cannot see something as possible and not do it."

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, first to circumnavigate the earth via the poles, 1982

"It was a worthwhile endeavour and stands on its own two feet alongside the first ascent of Mount Everest. It is not something I would scoff at."

Sir Chris Bonington, led expedition to Everest's south-west face, 1975

"It is a wonderful achievement. The difficulties they faced were demonstrated by the number of failed attempts there have been. But each attempt learned from the previous one and thanks to improvements in weather forecasting, it became just possible to stand up to the wind and the elements."

Richard Noble, leader of Thrust SSC team, which broke the sound barrier on land, 1997

"Invariably I find success in breaking records comes to small outfits of dedicated people like this one without a lot of money. Where a big wealthy company is involved, the people tend to be more conservative."