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Piccard Family

Swiss Physicist
Swiss Physicist
Swiss Physicist
Exploration Ranking 24th of 26
Piccard's balloon, commemoration of his two successful ascents into the stratosphere. Belgium, 1932.
Commemorative of Piccard's son, Jacques and Don Walsh's record dive. France, 1963

In 1931 Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer were the first to explore the upper stratosphere (reaching 51,775 feet) in an airtight cabin, with pressurized air, which Piccard invented. This technique later became commonplace on airplanes.


Historic Balloon Ascents


Piccard became interested in balloon ascents as a means of making experiments. He participated in many important research studies. When the University of Brussels created a chair for applied physics in 1922, Piccard, who was also a mechanic and an engineer, readily accepted the post. Having studied cosmic rays, he conceived of an experiment for observing them at ascents above 16,000 meters or 52,500 feet. Previous ascents showed that the stratosphere could be fatal and that to penetrate the isothermal layer, with its low pressure, a revolutionary balloon would be necessary.


He built such a balloon in 1930, with Belgian financing. Its main innovative feature was an airtight cabin, equipped with pressurized air. Another innovation was the design of a very large balloon having sufficient ascent strength so that, on departure, it need not be completely filled. On May 27, 1931, Piccard and Kipfer reached an altitude of 15,781 meters or 51,775 feet, where the atmospheric pressure is about one-tenth that at sea level. Upon returning to the surface, the scientist-adventurers were received triumphantly in Zurich then Brussels.


Descending to Great Ocean Depths



“Until man has placed himself on the bottom of the deepest depression on Earth he [will] not be satisfied. There is a driving force in all of us which cannot stop, if there is yet one step beyond.” 


Jacques Piccard



As a child, accounts of marine fish fascinated Piccard and he thought that man should also descend into the depths. Now, after his aeronautical successes, he wanted to build a device capable of resisting the pressures of the ocean depths, the bathyscaphe.


Depth-resistant cabins are, of necessity, heavier than water. Before Piccard, they were suspended from a cable, but at great depths this procedure was not dependable. Piccard revolutionized the dive by the principle of the balloon. Just as a lighter-than-air balloon carried the nacelle, or balloon gondola, a lighter-than-water float would support the cabin. And just as the balloon required a release of ballast to rise, the bathyscaphe would release weight in order to ascend after having completed its dive. Air, because it is too easily compressed, was not used in the floats; Piccard chose heptane (a petroleum derivative).


With his son Jacques, he descended to great ocean depths in a bathyscaphe. In 1960, Jacques and Don Walsh set the world record manned dive of 35,813 feet or 9,200 meters to the deepest point in the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean, 200 miles southwest of Guam. The deepest point is called the Challenger Deep. The voyage in their submersible, Trieste, down to the sea-floor, took five hours. At the bottom the pressure was 8,000 pounds per square inch, 1,000 times more pressure than at the surface with the water temperature dropping to 36.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 degrees inside the Trieste. It took three hours and seventeen minutes to reach the surface.


On March 26, 2012, James Cameron matched Piccard and Walsh’s record dive (35,756) in the Deepsea Challenger, a submersible he and Ron Allum designed in a two-and-a-half hour descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, about 23 miles from where the Trieste had reached the bottom.

On June 7, 2020 Astronaut Kathy Sullivan, who in 1984 became the first U.S. woman to take a spacewalk, also became the first woman to reach the Challenger Deep location. As of July 2020 a total of ten people have reached Challenger Deep.


Nonstop Around the World Balloon Flight


In 1999 Bertrand Piccard, Auguste’s grandson, along with Brian Jones, made the first nonstop round-the-world balloon flight. They also set the world record for nonstop distance covered – 25,361 miles and the duration record of 477.78 hours or nineteen days, 21 hours and 47 minutes. Piccard’s two earlier attempts to fly round-the-world failed, one after six hours, the other after nine days. His sponsors, the Breitling watch company had made it clear that his third balloon would be the last. Five other teams had also launched balloons in various parts of the world at the same time. A round-the-world balloon flight was generally accepted as the last great challenge in aviation, maybe even the greatest, because it had to combine the power of technology with the unpredictability of nature. One key piece of technology was a pressurized cabin required once they reached 6,000 feet above sea level since the air at high altitudes has too little oxygen to sustain life. They needed to fly at high altitudes to catch certain winds to fly fast enough to circle the Earth before they ran out of fuel.



            The Route


They took off on March 1, 1999 from the village of Chateaux-d'Oex in the Swiss Alps on board the Breitling Orbiter 3. They landed in the Egyptian desert after being aloft for nineteen days, twenty-one hours, and forty-seven minutes on March 21, 1999. They traveled a distance of 25,361 miles (40,814 km). During the course of the flight, the balloon climbed to altitudes of up to 38,507 feet (11,737 km), and achieved speeds up to 123 knots or 141.5 miles per hour. The route they flew took them over the following countries: Switzerland, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, then a second time over Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Egypt.


            Ground Crew Support


Piccard and Jones successful flight was only possible due to an amazing ground team stationed at the Geneva Airport that included controllers and meteorologists Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert that guided them across the Earth. Firstly they needed to take off at a certain time to align to a weather window that would give them the necessary track. Trullemans and Eckert had to predict, from existing wind patterns, the connections and interactions between different systems of wind that would give Piccard and Jones the trajectory they needed – a challenge of immense complexity.(1) At this time March 1, 1999 was chosen as the day when the winds would be blowing in the right pattern to allow their balloon to traverse the whole world in one continuous flight.


Once in the air, the only way balloon pilots can steer is by climbing or descending in search of winds blowing in the direction they want. The key was positioning the balloon at certain elevations to take advantage of natural wind patterns that would enable them to circumnavigate the globe before running out of propane fuel that was constantly turned on and off to position the balloon at specified elevations.


Another factor was restrictions by certain countries that required the balloonists to adjust their flight path to conform with no fly zones. Even before the balloonists took off they had to obtain permission to fly over each country on their flight path. In particular they could not fly over Iraq and when they flew over China they were only allowed to fly over the extreme southern portion of the country. Throughout their journey their support group on the ground was working with air traffic controllers in each country they passed over to receive permission to fly over the country and notify local authorities of their position to avoid a collision with other aircraft. Since Piccard and Jones needed to precisely follow natural wind currents to achieve their goal it proved challenging to coordinate their flight path with some countries’ governments. 



            Food and Equipment Used For the Journey


They brought fresh food for the first few days of flight plus nineteen days’ worth of dehydrated rations as well as 150 litre-and-a-half bottles of water. The life-support system created a breathable atmosphere by drawing oxygen from a tank and circulating it round the gondola, while lithium hydroxide filters absorbed the carbon dioxide given off by their breathing. They had three oxygen systems. The main cabin system produced a constant flow, taking oxygen from the liquid oxygen (lox) tank and injecting it into the air to produce a breathable atmosphere. Then they had a system which delivered 100 per cent oxygen (under pressure if needed) through masks connected to their flying helmets, which they would don if the cabin pressure failed. Finally, they had oxygen on their parachutes—because if you bail out at 30,000 feet without special breathing apparatus you are liable to suffer brain damage.


Detectors showed the percentage of oxygen in the air, which they could adjust via the normal lox system, and other monitors continuously measured levels of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and propane in the cabin. A series of warning lights came on if pressure inside the gondola rose too high, as well as showing if the gas valves at the top of the envelope were open or closed, and if the burner pilot lights were working normally. Though their living conditions were fairly basic, their equipment was as high-tech as money could buy. Electric power came from twenty solar panels, each three feet wide and eighteen inches tall, which trailed below them on a long line. The moment the sun came over the horizon every morning the solar panels sprang to life instantly, and they could see the charge coming through on the instruments.


Electric power was stored in five car batteries under the floor of the cockpit. In case they failed, they also had dry lithium batteries designed to last seventeen days. The power system proved highly efficient: the only time the panels failed to charge the batteries fully was late in the flight when, in the jet stream, they were surrounded by cirrus cloud which partially obscured the sun, and in the second half of the night they had to switch to the lithium battery supply.


Their single most valuable instrument was the global positioning system (GPS), which continuously showed the position of the balloon on a small moving map, and gave them their heading and their speed. As back-ups, they had two more GPS in their main and spare laptop computers, and they could call up the figures on the computer screens if necessary. There was also a hand-held GPS in their survival pack.


Two radar transponders automatically gave out their identity, altitude and position to air traffic centers along their route. The controllers would ask them to ‘squawk’ a number – say 3333 – and when they punched that in it told them who they were. An orange light flashed on their transponder unit whenever a radar station interrogated it to check their identity. For voice communication they had VHF (short-range) and HF (long range) radio and a satellite telephone. They also had two altimeters (for measuring altitude) – one standard, with revolving hands like a clock, and the other electronic, which gave a read-out in red lights. There was also a radio altimeter, which worked only at 2,500 feet or below by sending a beam straight down, and was for landing in low visibility. A variometer gave them their rate of climb and descent. To make a complete record of the flight, a baragraph was automatically taking a reading of altitude every few seconds. This instrument was sealed by an official observer before take-off, and they had no access to it while they were in the air. They also had four video cameras, two mounted outside the gondola, one mounted inside, and another inside which could be either mounted or hand-held. By putting digital video recordings on to their laptops with a digital Logitech camera they could send clips by satellite telephone back to Control.


            Specifications for the Balloon and Gondola


The balloon is 180 feet high when inflated and uses propane gas for fuel through six burners supplied by thirty-two titanium cylinders mounted in two rows along the sides of the gondola. Each cylinder or tank contained 250 pounds of liquid propane mixed with ethane, a more volatile gas, to increase fuel pressure at high attitudes. The gondola that Piccard and Jones used measures 10 feet, 3 inches high, a length of 17 feet, 10 inches, weighs 4,400 pounds empty and is made of kevlar and carbon fiber composite weave. The whole assembly including the gondola and fuel weighed 9.2 tons or 18,400 pounds. The cabin was pressurized using a nitrogen-oxygen mixture, to allow the two man crew to breathe there was a tank of liquid oxygen and carbon dioxide removal by lithium hydroxide filters. The gondola now resides in the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.




(1) Piccard’s team of meteorologists used two principal sources of information for the balloon flight. Eckert used ECMWF, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, in Reading, England, and Trullemans got forecasts via the Internet from NOAA, the American National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. These two organizations process observations from all over the world – from satellites, radio-balloons, aircraft, ships – and produce computer models that give forecasts for the next fourteen days. Much of the information comes from geostationary satellites, 23,500 miles out in space, which can observe the movement of clouds and so gauge the speed and direction of wind; also, by measuring infra-red radiation, they can give temperature profiles. Polar orbiter satellites, flying lower, analyze temperatures more precisely.


Key References


By Auguste:

1. Earth, Sky and Sea, 1956. 

2. In Balloon and Bathyscaph, 1956.


3. On Cameron’s dive, National Geographic Magazine, June 2013, pgs. 46-59.


By Jacques and Brian Jones

4. By Jacques and Brian Jones: Around the World in 20 Days – The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flight, 1999.

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