Great Futures spoke with Brian Jones about his experience co-piloting the first hot-air balloon to ever fly non-stop around the world.
How did this hot-air balloon project come about?
Back in the early 90s there was a fairly major competition to get a balloon to go around the world, which only became possible with the advent of GPS. Once GPS came into its own, several wealthy adventurers decided they would like to get their name in the history books because there were very few aviation feats that hadn’t been achieved by the end of the 90s.
Why did you get involved?
At that time I was a professional balloonist and the chief flying instructor in the U.K. for balloons. The watch company Breitling was a sponsor of one of the teams that was attempting it. They asked me to come in because I have a military background and a pretty high pedigree in ballooning. They aasked me to look at some of the problems they were having and advise them where I could.
So in a way, did you win a race around the world?
There were 23 attempts planned in the 90s. The best known were Steve Fossett’s, an American who put a lot of money into trying to be the first, and is in fact the only other person to have done it. And then there was Richard Branson, with all of his attempts ending in failure. So it was pretty high profile at the time with some pretty interesting characters. We never felt it was a race, per se, but that’s what the media made of it.
What is it like to live in a balloon for 20 days? Did you go stir-crazy at all?
We didn’t go stir-crazy. We were locked in this little capsule — just me and my co-pilot Bertrand Piccard — but it wasn’t as claustrophobic as some people would think because the capsule was our protection from the elements outside. You lose sense of time, and you are so focused on the job at hand because it’s not an easy thing to fly one of the biggest balloons that’s ever been built. You’re constantly looking for the right winds and there’s no autopilot, so one person is always physically flying it. We tried to make the capsule, as small as it was, as comfortable as we could.
Aside from being the first person to circumvent the world in a hot air balloon, what other records did you break during that historic flight?
It was the longest flight ever. We took off from Switzerland, and the furthest point west we set on returning to was West Africa. When we came back over Africa, we couldn’t actually land safely in Mauritania, Algeria, or Libya, so we carried on to Egypt to find the best landing area. That was an extra 4,000 miles, enough to set the record.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.