At 53, millionaire adventurer J. Stephen Fossett possesses the heart of a daredevil and the bank account to finance his wildest ambitions, which by any measure are extreme. He has swum the English Channel, raced hot rods and dog sleds and climbed mountain peaks in Antarctica - all before hitting on his latest obsession, sailing around the world in a hot air balloon.
On New Year’s Eve, Fossett set out for a fourth time to conquer one of the last great challenges of flight, a nonstop circumnavigation of the globe in a lighter-than-air ship. But Monday, four days and 7,300 miles later, the attempt ended abruptly in a Russian wheat field, where Fossett was forced to land after a broken heater caused temperatures in his cabin to plummet to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the end, Fossett succumbed to a case of cold feet.
“It really wears on you, to be sitting in an environment that cold,” the Chicago commodities trader said by telephone from Krasnodar, Russia, not far from the Black Sea village where his 160-foot-tall vessel, Solo Spirit, came to rest.
Fossett’s adventure began to unravel Sunday, when poor weather and malfunctioning equipment threw him off course and cost him precious fuel. But it was the lack of heat in Fossett’s unpressurized, 6-by-4-foot capsule that doomed the flight. Neither Fossett’s expensive array of computers and gadgets nor his private army of engineers and meteorologists at his St. Louis-based “Mission Control” could do anything to warm the pilot’s frozen toes.
It was a bitterly disappointing and very public defeat for Fossett, who not only failed to meet his goal but also fell short by 3,000 miles of matching his record performance from last winter, when he got as far as India before running out of fuel.
At least three other ballooning crews were preparing to attempt the same feat in the coming days as part of an international race to claim one of the oldest and most sought-after goals in the history of piloted flight. The contestants include professional pilots as well as wealthy international risk-takers such as Fossett who are willing to spend large sums of money in pursuit of the ultimate thrill.
The round-the-world flight is widely seen as one of the last Mount Everests to conquer for a small but well-heeled group of derring-doers who have both an insatiable appetite for risk and the means to indulge their fantasies.
“They see it as a romantic, heroic effort - a pitting of yourself against nature,” said Leonard Zegans, a professor and expert on the psychiatry of risk-taking at the University of California at San Francisco. “So much of the world is homogenized, predictable. People want to do something that’s exceptional.”
For Fossett, one of only two balloon pilots in the current race to fly solo, the achievement was to be the latest in a string of personal exploits that span his adult life. A mild-spoken Midwesterner with gray, thinning hair and a slight paunch, he has set a series of seemingly impossible goals for himself and then managed, through pluck and perseverance, to meet them.
He climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, came in 47th in the Alaska’s grueling Iditarod dog sled race and drove a race car briefly in the Formula Atlantic circuit. His 1985 crossing of the English Channel was achieved in typical Fossett fashion: on an exhausting fourth attempt that lasted 22 hours and won him an endurance trophy from the British Channel Swimming Association.
His newest quarry has proved to be even tougher to snare, although Fossett managed to set new records for distance and endurance in two of his three previous attempts to sail around the globe.
The Anheuser-Busch Co. is offering a $500,000 prize for the first team that successfully completes the flight, with a matching sum going to the crew’s favorite charity. But the size of the award is dwarfed by expenses that are reported to run as high as $5 million to $7 million for some balloonists. Fossett’s Solo Spirit, by contrast, cost $350,000, a spokesman said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Lofty goal Balloonists’ attempts to be the first to fly nonstop around the world: January 1981 - Americans Maxie Anderson and Don Ida make the first round-the-world attempt, but travel only 2,676 miles from Egypt to India. Two later attempts also fail. In 1983, both are killed in a balloon crash in Germany. November 1991 to December 1994 - Earthwinds Hilton team makes five attempts from Ohio and Nevada, each doomed by technical problems. Feb. 18, 1995 - American Steve Fossett leaves Seoul, South Korea. Four days later, he lands 5,430 miles away in Saskatchewan - setting a distance record and becoming the first to fly solo across the Pacific. Though it wasn’t announced at the time, he had hoped to continue around the world. Jan. 8, 1996 - Fossett leaves the Stratobowl, a natural depression in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Mechanical problems end the flight two days and more than 1,800 miles later in a field in New Brunswick. Jan. 7, 1997 - British tycoon Richard Branson leaves a military base near Marrakech, Morocco, on a balloon flight with two other crew members. Mechanical problems force them down 19 hours and 400 miles later in Algeria. Jan. 12, 1997 - Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Wim Verstraeten of Belgium leave Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland. Kerosene fumes choke off their air supply, forcing them down six hours later in the Mediterranean. Jan. 14, 1997 - Fossett leaves St. Louis. Short on fuel after waiting for clearance from Libya, he lands in India. His six-day, 10,361-mile trip sets ballooning records for distance and time afloat. Dec. 9, 1997 - While preparing to take off from Marrakech, Branson’s “Virgin Global Challenger” tears away by itself in a strong gust of wind. Algerian authorities recover it the next day in southwest Algeria. Jan. 1, 1998 - Fossett leaves St. Louis on his fourth round-the-world attempt. After 4-1/2 days, he lands on the edge of the Black Sea, 50 miles north of Krasnodar, Russia, and about 7,300 miles from St. Louis. Jan. 1, 1998 - American Kevin Uliassi takes off from a quarry near Rockford, Ill., shortly after Fossett’s departure in St. Louis. Less than two hours later, a burst helium container forces Uliassi to abort the flight. He lands in Indiana.