Awfully nice of Anheuser-Busch to put up a $1 million prize for the first non-stop balloon flight around the world, with half going to charity. The only thing nicer, in fact, would be for those generous folks at Bud just to give the money to charity and call off all this annoying ballooning.
It’s hard to say what ballooning is. If it’s a sport, it’s a sport in which rich men fend off mid-life crises by outspending each other in an attempt to make these absurdly expensive balloons as unlike balloons as possible. If it’s an adventure, it’s the ultimate adventure in conspicuous consumption by those who have everything but common sense.
Consider Steve Fossett, wealthy commodities trader. He takes off from St. Louis Dec. 31 in a $350,000 balloon, a balloon outfitted with computer-controlled burners, every electronic navigation device on the market and a fortune in assorted other high-tech doodads. He calls it quits over Russia because of equipment failure a few days later. Was it his state-of-the-art ultrasonic cyclocombobulator that gave out? Hardly. It was his space heater. The same space heater that fizzled the last time he took his $350,000 balloon up. Note to Mr. Fossett: Even old VW Beetles have heaters that work. Get one.
In the true spirit of the, OK, sport, Fossett says he’ll do better next time. Not by toughing it out, not even by learning heater repair in his spare time, but by adding a pressurized cabin so he can float way above the bad weather. Note to Mr. F: why not just add two wings, three or four jet engines, a couple of flight attendants and an on-board movie? What you have is no longer a balloon. It’s just a slow, meandering airliner.
Then there’s Fossett’s leading competitors, Dick Rutan and David Melton. They have a much more expensive balloon, the Global Hilton, no less. They have a pressurized cabin. They scrubbed their take-off the other day because there might be bad weather way up high. What they need, apparently, is a lighter-than-air penthouse suite with Jacuzzi.
The supporting cast is equally precious. British megamillionaire Richard Branson was planning to lift off from Morocco until his balloon sailed away without him while he was posing for photos. Swiss ace Bertrand Piccard has been sitting for some time on top of an Alp. He’s got the vertical part of ballooning worked out, but he just can’t seem to get the hang of moving horizontally.
Last and least, there is Kevin Uliassi. He took off from a Chicago suburb last Wednesday. Two hours later, he was standing in northern Indiana, his ship crippled by a faulty vent. Those who know northern Indiana know just how much this serves him right.
In fact, the only one who’s shown any good sense at all in this recent pandemic of pointless enterprise is Mikhail Panchenko. He’s the Russian farmer in whose field Fossett landed. What did M. Panchenko do when he saw a silver shimmering balloon headed his way with a commodities trader aboard? He dropped his hoe and ran for home.