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Joseph Kittinger readies himself for a high-altitude jump, standing beside the Excelsior gondola, August 27, 1960

Joseph Kittinger readies himself for a high-altitude jump, standing beside the Excelsior gondola, August 27, 1960.

Captain Kittinger steps from a balloon-supported gondola at 102,800 feet in his high-altitude jump from the Excelsior

Captain Kittinger steps from a balloon-supported gondola at 102,800 feet in his high-altitude jump from the Excelsior.

The Breitling Orbiter 3

The Breitling Orbiter 3.

Higher, Farther, and Longer — Record Balloon Flights in the Second Part of the Twentieth Century

As the twentieth century progressed, more altitude and distance balloon records were made and broken. In August 1957, a U.S. Air Force surgeon, Major David Simons, climbed to a record 102,100 feet (31,110 meters), remained aloft for 32 hours, and drifted 405 miles (652 kilometers) from his starting point.

Three years later, on August 27, 1960, that record was broken when a U.S. Air Force captain, Joseph Kittinger, Jr., set a world record for the highest balloon ascent, reaching an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) in the Excelsior III. At the end of his ascent, he jumped out of his gondola and parachuted to the ground. That descent set another record for the longest parachute freefallfour minutes and 36 secondsbefore his main parachute opened at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). During his descent, he reached speeds of up to 614 miles per hour (1,149 kilometers per hour), approaching the speed of sound without an aircraft or space vehicle. He fell through air temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). His flight and parachute jump demonstrated that it was possible to put a person into space and that fliers could exit their aircraft at extremely high altitudes and freefall back into the Earth's atmosphere.

On May 4, 1961, U.S. Navy Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather set an altitude record of 113,740 feet (34,668 meters) on a flight launched from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Antietam over the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the Stratolab project, Ross and Prather ascended in the largest balloon ever used on a manned flight up to that time. They reached their maximum altitude two hours and 36 minutes after takeoff. Their achievement was marred, however, by the death of Prather, who fell from the sling of the recovery helicopter and died on board the carrier about an hour after being pulled from the water.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean by balloon has always been one of the major challenges that aeronauts faced. However, all attempts failed until August 1978 when the Double Eagle II, piloted by Americans Ben Abruzzo, Max Anderson, and Larry Newman, flew their helium-filled balloon from Presque Isle, Maine, to Miserey, France. The crew left Maine on August 11 and landed in France on August 17, setting a distance record of 3,107 miles (5,000 kilometers) and an endurance record of 137 hours and 6 minutes.

This endurance record stood until 1992, when two Americans, Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo, who was the son of Double Eagle crewmember Ben Abruzzo, competed in the world's first transatlantic race. They left Bangor, Maine, on September 15, 1992, were blown off course, and landed near Fez, Morocco, a record-setting 146 hours and 16 minutes later.

Captain Kittinger was the first to make a solo Atlantic crossing. On September 14-18, 1984, he flew from Caribou, Maine, to the Italian Riviera near Savona, Italy, in the 105,944-cubic-foot (3,000 cubic meter) helium-filled Rosie O'Grady. His trip covered 3,535 miles (5,690 kilometers) in 86 hours.

The Pacific Ocean also was a challenge to balloonists. The first balloon flight to cross the Pacific Ocean was crewed by Abruzzo, Newman, Rocky Aoki, and Ron Clark in November 1981, who flew from Nagashima, Japan, to Covello, California. The first solo transpacific flight was made in 1995, by American Steve Fossett, who flew from Seoul, South Korea, to a point near Leader, Saskatchewan, Canada, setting a distance record of 5,208 miles (8,380 kilometers). He also broke the world records for distance and duration in January 1997, by flying 9,672 miles (15,562 kilometers) in the Solo Spirit in a flight lasting 146 hours and 54 minutes and which went from St. Louis, Missouri to India. This was one of the earlier attempts to circle the globe by balloon.

Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, Auguste Piccard's grandson, and Briton Brian Jones made the most recent record-breaking balloon flight, Flying in the Breitling Orbiter 3, it was the first nonstop trip around the world by balloon. The balloon left Château-d'Oex, Switzerland, on March 1, 1999, and landed at 1:02 a.m. on March 21 in the Egyptian desert 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Cairo. The two men broke distance, endurance, and time records, traveling 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes. Their route traveled south from the Swiss Alps over North Africa, where they caught the jet stream heading east toward the Arabian Desert, crossing India, and over Southeast Asia. They had a smooth Pacific crossing that they completed in six days. But east of Central America and 7 miles (11 kilometers) up, the balloonists were trapped in light spiraling winds and temperatures dropped to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) in their cabin, causing breathing problems. Winds finally improved and they picked up the jet stream again, which propelled them across the Atlantic Ocean on their final leg.

The two men were aided by advances in balloon technology and weather forecasting, as well as by the global positioning system (GPS). These advances allowed the ground control team to track the balloon's route and calculate its best altitude to take advantage of high-altitude jet stream winds that blew at velocities as high as 200 miles per hour (321 kilometers per hour) The balloon traveled at altitudes as high as 36,000 feet (11,000 meters) and as fast as 105 miles per hour (176 kilometers per hour) across the Pacific Ocean.

The crew also had to obtain permission to fly over each of the countries along the route. This can be a problem because the wind may carry the balloon over countries where permission has been denied. In past attempts, flights have had to be aborted because permission was denied. One balloon was even shot down and the pilots killed by a Belarussian helicopter gunship on September 12, 1995.

The Breitling Orbiter 3 was constructed by Cameron Balloons of Bristol, England, and was 180 feet (55 meters) tall. Piccard and Jones were squeezed into a capsule that measured only 17 feet 10 inches (5.4 meters) long and 10 feet 3 inches (3.1 meters) high.

Balloon enthusiasts believe they are engaged in the ultimate aviation sport. No matter how many balloon flights take place, each has to face the unique vagaries of the wind and the atmosphere—something that cannot be said for more routine and predictable powered flight.

--Judy Rumerman


Kirschner, Edwin J. Aerospace Balloons. From Montgolfiere to Space. Fallbrook, Ca.: Aero Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Millbrooke, Anne. Aviation History. Jeppesen Sanderson Training Products. Englewood, Colorado: Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc. 1999, 2000.

"Project Excelsior." Release No. 88-60. U.S. Air Force Office of Information Services. Air Research and Development Command. August 1960.

On-Line Sources:

"Around the World by Balloon." Allstar Network. http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/breitling.htm.

"Breitling Orbiter 3 Gondola." Milestones of Flight. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. http://www.nasm.edu/galleries/gal100/breitling.htm.

"Kittinger, Joseph William, Jr. – 1997. National Aviation Hall of Fame. http://www.nationalaviation.org/enshrinee/kittinger.html.

Further References:

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Payne, Lee. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of the Airship. New York: Orion Books, 1991.

Ryan, Craig. The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

"Balloon." Funk & Wagnalls Multimedia Encyclopedia. http://www.FunkandWagnalls.com.

FĂ©deration Aéronautique International. Ballooning Commission. 1999-07-02. CIA List of Notable Performance and Achievements. Flights over 2 000 km (1 243 Statute miles / 1 080 Nautical miles) http://www.fai.org/ballooning/notable.htm.

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation in problem solving.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.