So, Steve Fossett has made it around the world in a balloon. Whoopee!
I can’t remember when something was getting so much hype from the media while so few people cared. I certainly don’t.
Now that he’s accomplished this circumnavigation by balloon, what good will it do mankind? What do we, as humans, do with whatever technology it is that helped him make it around the globe? Is there a dire need for great advances in balloon science that we’re not aware of? Are scientists jumping up and down, happy to see yet another natural obstacle overcome, leading us to a breakthrough of any sort?
I doubt it.
If there’s anything positive to take from Fossett being successful after five failed attempts, it’s that we no longer have to hear about him trying to achieve his feat.
Fossett’s flight reminds me of those guys who decide to battle the elements as they row a boat solo across the Atlantic. Or the chef who creates the world’s biggest burrito. I suppose they can be proud of their personal achievement, but I can’t imagine why anyone else would even bother taking notice. Except perhaps for Richard Branson, another guy with too much money and this odd ballooning hobby.
It’s not that I have anything against hot air balloons. My wife and I once took a very nice ride in one. It didn’t remotely resemble the high-tech version Fossett used, but it was a lot of fun. We took off at dawn, just as the fog was lifting. Standing in the basket, we were amazed at how easily the basket lifted us off the ground. The pilot took us up several hundred feet by pulling on a cord attached to the burners a couple of feet above our heads. They shot giant flames upward to heat the air inside the balloon, which made us rise. Then, suddenly, he shut them off, and the air was incredibly still. It was that eerie, early morning quiet you can only hear out in the country before the world wakes up.
As we drifted over the treetops, the pilot pointed down at a cow standing in a pasture. He told us to keep our eyes on it as he blasted the burner for just a moment to keep us aloft. The sudden noise of the roaring flame made the cow jump and look around. It had no way of knowing that the sound was coming from above, and I remember wondering what was going through the cow’s mind at that point. Must’ve confused the hell out of her. I’m no animal behaviorist, but I doubt that cows have very much sense of the vertical.
We were up for the better part of an hour, and then the pilot, with the help of his partner in a chase van below, began looking for a place to land. Spotting a field that looked big enough, he began our descent as gravity did its job. He warned us that this was the roughest part of ballooning, and he wasn’t kidding. The ground started coming up awfully quickly. The pilot told us to lean way back in the basket so the whole thing wouldn’t tip over when we hit. It almost did, anyway. Suffice it to say that hot air balloons don’t come to a nice, quiet stop on a dime. We bumped and dragged along the ground for a couple dozen yards before friction overcame inertia and we ground to a halt.
Once the pilot had made sure that we were okay, he asked, “They don’t tell you about that when you sign up, do they?” We replied, “No, they sure don’t” as we laughed it off. It was that nervous kind of laugh you make when you realize you just had a brush with possible injury — like when you go to change lanes on the highway and at the last second glance over and realize there’s a car already in that lane and you would have hit it if you hadn’t swerved back into your own lane.
That’s the real reason the media paid so much attention to Fossett’s adventure. There was always a chance Fossett would die before reaching the finish line — either by crashing into the ocean, or being shot down over Afghanistan by celebrants at a wedding party. The threat of death is always a more dramatic story. It’s why we remember Apollo 13, but not Apollo 14.
Those, by the way, were real milestones of aviation. But let’s not elevate Steve Fossett to the level of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Chuck Yeager, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong. Somehow, I don’t see the great pioneers of future flight advances looking to this one for guidance in achieving their breakthroughs.
Unless they really want to scare the hell out of a lot of cows.