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Around the World (Almost) in a Balloon

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Since the late 1700s, people have been trying to fly farther and faster by way of hot air balloon. In recent times, a fair number have had ties to the Rockford, area, including Kevin Uliassi, who launched from Loves Park.

February, 2000, 27,500 feet over the Atlantic, approaching Africa: Kevin Uliassi stands in the open hatch of his capsule while controlling the overhead propane burners, during his attempt to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon.(JReneeLLC photo)

February, 2000, 27,500 feet over the Atlantic, approaching Africa: Kevin Uliassi stands in the open hatch of his capsule while controlling the overhead propane burners, during his attempt to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon.(JReneeLLC photo)

Kevin Uliassi is a successful architect and family man, living the American Dream in Phoenix, Ariz., with his wife of 20 years, Renee, and their sons Joel, 15, and Adam, 12. But back in the 1990s, he was part of a group of world-wide adventurers who scrambled to set and break world records in balloons. And for a time, he put the little city of Loves Park, Ill., on the map, as part of his adventures.

Uliassi was born and raised in Chicago Heights, Ill., and received his balloon pilot’s license when he was 18. By the mid-1980s, he was already captivated by the idea of circumnavigating the earth in a balloon, and began to crunch the numbers to prove how it could be done.

“We had all this information about ballooning since the 1780s,” says Uliassi. “What it took to make it happen was for meteorological forecasting to catch up, and for people to come to a way of thinking about the engineering behind it – to say we can put all these parts together and do it this way.”

Meanwhile, the competition was setting and breaking ballooning records all over:

1978: Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo (from Rockford!), and Larry Newman in “Double Eagle II” are the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon; 3,120 miles, Maine to France.

1981: Abruzzo, Ron Clark, Larry Newman & Rocky Aoki in “Double Eagle V” make the first crossing of the Pacific; 5,768 miles, Japan to California.

1984: Joe Kittinger in “Rosie O’Grady” makes the first solo crossing of the Atlantic; 3,534 miles, Maine to Italy.
1995: Steve Fossett makes the first solo crossing of the Pacific.

“I was watching TV coverage of all these other people trying to fly around the world, but doing it the wrong way,” recalls Uliassi. “I said to my wife, ‘If I don’t do it soon, I won’t be able to live with myself, and you won’t want to live with me, either.’ She said, ‘Sure – follow your dream!’”

Months of planning and organizing followed, including obtaining a $200,000 aircraft loan from a bank, lining up personnel and support services, designing and constructing the gondola/capsule and envelope/balloon, choosing a launch site, and moving to Arizona. He named the balloon the “J. Renee.”

“If you’re going to do something incredibly stupid, dangerous, and really expensive, always name it after your wife,” jokes Uliassi. “Then she might not complain.”

Uliassi’s original launch site, a quarry south of Chicago, fell through at the last minute, but a fellow balloonist, Bill O’Donnell from Rockford, suggested using the Rockford Blacktop quarry on Nimtz Road in Loves Park, the same one used in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

And so, Uliassi’s first attempt to circumnavigate the world alone in a balloon occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1997. He launched the “J. Renee” – which resembled a huge vanilla ice cream cone, 220 feet high containing 420,000 cubic feet – from the bottom of the Nimtz Road quarry, around midnight, in front of a cheering crowd of freezing spectators and volunteers. About an hour later, as he entered the controlled airspace over O’Hare Airport at 21,000 feet, the helium envelope at the top of his balloon burst open, forcing him to struggle to control his descent with the burners below the hot air envelope. Within two hours, Uliassi landed safely in a snow-covered field near Knox, Ind.

The capsule survived the landing, but incurred minor damage when it snagged some irrigation equipment. Uliassi later learned at a federal safety investigation that, due to a design flaw in the balloon, the helium vents failed to allow excess helium to escape from the envelope, as he rose in altitude, and the gas expanded. This setback proved to be only temporary, however, and after regrouping his organization, repairing the gondola, and obtaining a new envelope, Uliassi was ready for another attempt by the 1998-99 winter flying season. However, Chinese restrictions on their airspace cancelled his plans until February of 2000.

To save weight, and expense, Uliassi’s flight plans called for flying in an unpressurized gondola. To give him a greater safety margin, in case his oxygen system failed, he conditioned his body to the thinner atmosphere he would encounter, by sleeping in an altitude chamber in his Arizona bedroom for several weeks before each flight.

“To prevent me from overheating, we had to keep the house at 65 degrees,” says Uliassi. “My wife would sleep in the bed next to the chamber, but all bundled up from the cold, while I was in my skivvies. She also had to put up with the noise of the vacuum pump, which I could barely hear.

“My flight surgeon and I designed the sleep program, but I never slept higher than 21,000 feet [simulated altitude]. It gets your body prepared so, if you lose oxygen at 36,000 feet, you have 15 to 20 minutes to save your life, rather than 15 to 20 seconds.”

The envelope for Uliassi’s first flight was designed and manufactured by Cameron Balloons in Bristol, England, but it utilized a special fabric and laminated coating produced to his specifications by Lamcote in Monson, Mass. For his second flight, Uliassi redesigned the Cameron balloon, and made modifications in Rockford at a hangar provided by Emery Air.

“We disassembled and reassembled the balloon because we weren’t 100 percent satisfied with the way it was constructed,” says Uliassi. “It was a good thing we did. If we hadn’t made those changes, when I got sucked into a big thunderstorm over Egypt, it would have destroyed the balloon – no question in my mind.”

Uliassi used his skills and experience as an architect and engineer to design the balloon’s unpressurized gondola. Built like a super-insulated picnic cooler, the 4’ X 6’8” X 5’ capsule had six-inch thick walls of high-density foam, covered inside and out with space-age carbon fiber material. Inside were a sleeping bench and a desk with flight instrumentation, as well as food and water for a 20-day journey. Empty, the capsule weighed only 280 pounds, and could easily be carried by four men, but it supported over 15,000 pounds of external supplies. This included three bags of sand ballast, 35 propane/ethane tanks for the burner, and two liquid oxygen tanks. These tanks were attached to the balloon by nylon straps that contained explosive cutters, which could release them in an emergency.

“In addition to stiffness, the foam added very high thermal insulation to the capsule,” says Uliassi. “During the second flight, the outside temperature approached minus-70 degrees, but inside I was comfortable in almost shirtsleeve conditions for most of the flight. At the very end, at about 36,000 feet, the temperature in the gondola was in the 40s and 50s, and that was just the heat from my body and the computers. I only turned on the heater twice, both times at night. The rest of the time I just dealt with it, because it wasn’t that cold.”

The only window on the gondola was a polycarbonate dome on the hatch above the desk, where Uliassi could view almost down to the horizon, without opening the hatch. He had no visibility toward the ground from inside.

Uliassi’s second attempt to fly around the world was launched from the same quarry in Loves Park on Feb. 22, 2000. His departure was delayed about three hours because the area where he intended to lay out the balloon envelope prior to inflation had flooded. Rockford Blacktop crews constructed an emergency “launch pad” of sand and gravel to avoid the water.

“My meteorologist, Lou Ballones, was really angry about that later,” recalls Uliassi. “At the time, we didn’t tell him about the delay, because I was afraid he would then cancel the flight.”

Because of the delay, Uliassi encountered severe thunderstorms over the Caribbean, which he had hoped to avoid.

“I was bouncing around like a pinball between them,” says Uliassi. “One thing you never want to do is look down inside a thunderstorm. It’s a very scary place – like a witch’s cauldron.”

Uliassi spent 29 hours flying along with the storms, never getting pulled into one, but unable sleep or rest, since he was piloting the balloon. He wore his parachute and was attached to his life raft the whole time.

“I didn’t take them off for a minute,” he says. “If something bad happened, I wanted to be able to bail out and survive in the ocean.”

While flying over Puerto Rico, Uliassi noticed a “funny noise” whose source he couldn’t locate.

“You get used to the cadence of sounds from the balloon, things stretching, moving around, instrument noises,” he says, “so when you hear something strange, you pay attention. I started shutting off equipment to track down the sound – the electronics, burners, even held my breath so I didn’t make any sounds with the oxygen system. Finally, I realized the sound I’m hearing is music, coming from the ground. It was a woman playing a guitar and singing. I was 21,000 feet –four miles up in the air, and I could hear her singing!”

Some time later, Uliassi received a call on his VHF aircraft radio from the pilot of a TWA passenger airliner. After exchanging official flight information, Uliassi and the pilot dropped the official jargon and began to converse informally.

“He told me his name was Karl, and that he had diverted his TWA flight quite a distance so he could get closer to the balloon and his passengers could see me,” says Uliassi. “He was circling the balloon. We had a good talk, and then he departed for his destination. About five days later, while flying over India, I got another call from a commercial flight. When I answered it, the pilot said, ‘Kevin – this is Karl!’ lt was the same guy. He had found me again!”

Uliassi spent most of his time, during the day, outside the capsule, on the roof, enjoying the sunshine. It was warm enough to wear just a flannel shirt. During times of outdoor activity, however, he wore a safety harness, which he fastened to the burner assembly overhead. Because it was designed to fit snugly against his body, the harness prevented him from wearing a coat in cold weather. Anytime he was above 20,000 feet, he also wore his oxygen mask.

Whenever he had emptied two fuel tanks, Uliassi had to exit the capsule, disconnect the empty tanks and drop them overboard, then connect a full tank.

“Typically, I had to do that at night, when it was bitterly cold,” says Uliassi. “It was really hard work. When the hoses got cold, I had to pound on them with wrenches to get them loose. It was very challenging for me.”

One night, while working on the top of the capsule at 32,000 feet in the air, he felt something tapping him on the back. Irritated, he turned around to see what it was.

“It was the end of the safety harness rope,” he says, “I had forgotten to hook it to the burner. I went from complete confidence to sheer terror in 10 seconds, and crawled my way back into the capsule.”

Uliassi had two autopilot programs that would fly the balloon when he was resting or sleeping. By measuring such variables as air pressure and rate of acceleration, the computer would use an algorithm to decide whether or not to fire the burners.

“When you first engage the autopilot, it watches how you fly the balloon manually,” says Uliassi. “After a few minutes it takes control over the flying, initially flying as badly as you were, then getting better. Eventually it flies the balloon more level than any human pilot could.”

The Atlantic crossing was relatively slow. One night Uliassi got ready to go to sleep, while the autopilot flew the balloon through the dark sky.

“I couldn’t go to sleep, so I put on some music – Beethoven, I think,” he says. “I still couldn’t sleep, so I opened the hatch to go outside on the roof. When I looked outside, I was surrounded by more stars than I have ever seen. They looked unreal, like Christmas lights. I had a kind of epiphany … For years, people had asked why I wanted to do this thing. Now I had my answer: How exciting to be somewhere no one has been, to see something completely by yourself that no one else was seeing!”

Uliassi’s good luck with the weather ran out over Egypt, when he was drawn up into a thunderstorm no one saw coming.

“It was like being inside a freight train,” he says, “the noisiest, wildest place I’ve ever been. That balloon got tossed around like a little toy, all 220 feet and 15,000 pounds of it. I was going up and down at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet a minute.”

Uliassi called his meteorologist, a U.S. Air Force veteran and experienced balloonist.

“I said, ‘I think I’m in a thunderstorm,’ but he said, ‘no, that’s impossible.’ I told him what I saw, and he decided I was under the anvil cloud of a really big storm. ‘Do I go up or down?’ I asked, because it makes a difference where you are in the storm. He said, ‘Try descending and call me back.’ I descended and sure enough, I came out of the bottom of the storm.”

Because of the critical nature of flight adjustments, during the event, Uliassi was standing half outside of the capsule during the entire ordeal, and flying the balloon manually.

“In such circumstances, I wouldn’t dare fly it on autopilot,” he says. “It was under stresses I had to adjust to. If it was going up, I had to turn off the burners to make sure I wasn’t shooting through my ceiling [the altitude at which the helium envelope is fully inflated, and begins to dump helium to prevent a rupture]. Going downwards, I needed to prevent losing control and plunging into Egypt or the Red Sea.

“When I emerged at the bottom, I was completely covered in ice – my jacket, my hair – inches of ice formed on everything, the balloon, and the tanks. But I was still in the air.”

Ulassi’s second flight came to a premature end over Calcutta, India, when the pressure regulator on his oxygen mask failed. It’s the same regulator used by F-15 fighter pilots in the Air force, he says. In case of such an event, Uliassi’s rehearsed operating procedure was to immediately reach for the emergency oxygen mask, put it on, turn on a valve, and then try to figure out a solution to the problem.

“Instead, I foolishly tried to use the oxygen that was flowing unimpeded out of the primary mask,” says Uliassi. “I was using up a lot of energy and oxygen, trying to solve the problem, going through my tool kit. I fiddled with that system long enough to put myself into a hypoxic seizure about 15 minutes later. I managed to descend to 24,000 feet, felt much better, and regained all my functions. Had I not been acclimated by the altitude chamber, I would have died up there.”

After sleeping that night, Uliassi awoke the next day “feeing awful,” the seizure having worn him out. “That’s when I made the decision to get on the ground,” he says. “I didn’t even tell my ground crew I had decided to land.”

Uliassi believes he suffered a concussion from some source after landing, possibly a blow to the head by a zealous soldier, and as a result of retrograde amnesia, he has no memory of the actual landing.

“I remember seeing the landing site, the trees, knowing where I was, but not the landing itself,” he says. “People on the ground who saw it said it was a competent landing.”

One of those people was Cary Crawley, a British expatriate living in Myanmar. He was an experienced balloonist, and in fact operated the only balloon port in Southeast Asia, just 16 miles from where Uliassi landed near the village of Nyaungu, Myanmar (formerly Burma).

“By the time I landed, I had a fully trained professional balloon crew to help put the balloon away safely,” says Uliassi.

His first clear memory, after the landing, was of a man in military uniform insisting that he go to a nearby hospital for examination. He was loaded into the back of an ambulance that was too short for his 6’ 4” frame, so his boots stuck out through the open doors. The rutted roadway was filled with weeds that kept slapping at his boots during the journey.

“I remember thinking, ‘There are tigers in Burma,’” says Uliassi. “My feet would be really appetizing for a tiger!”
The friendly villagers were very protective of Uliassi during his brief contact with them, taking care of him as if he were their child.

The world governing body for air sports is the Swiss Federation Aeronautic International (FAI), and it’s their definitions and decisions that determine who has achieved or broken which records. According to the FAI, to qualify for a circumnavigation of the earth, a balloon must: cross all meridians; fly at least one-half the distance of the earth’s circumference at the equator, or 12,451 miles; and make a flight path that avoids polar caps, by maintaining a minimum distance from the poles.

Uliassi’s balloon flight officially lasted 10 days, three hours and 28 minutes, for a distance of 12,443 miles –about 1700 miles short of the solo record set by Steve Fossett in 1998. Uliassi’s average speed was 51 miles per hour, and his top speed was nearly 300 miles per hour. At the time of completion, he held the AM-13 and AM-14 world records for distance and duration in a Rozier-type balloon.

“I would have had the altitude record also,” says Uliassi, “but someone removed the batteries from my barograph during customs inspection coming home, and the FAI wouldn’t recognize any other source for that data.”

Uliassi returned to a press conference at O’Hare Airport on March 6, 2000, wearing sunglasses to cover a black eye incurred when he received his concussion. The crowd of reporters also included his family and members of his ground crew, who were much relieved to hear of his safe landing. During a post-flight interview, he was asked if he was disappointed in the outcome.

“One of the nice things about ballooning is that you don’t always know what’s going to happen at the end of the flight,” he replied. “That’s always been the magic of ballooning for me. If I had completed the flight and landed back in Illinois, I would have fewer stories to tell, and wouldn’t have met and made friends with the villagers in Myanmar.”

The “J. Renee” gondola is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, along with other items from the flight. The balloon envelope is there also, but in storage.

“[The Museum] asked for everything to do with the flight,” says Uliassi. “It’s the most complete collection from any balloon flight they have.”

Uliassi entertained the possibility of making another attempt to fly around the world, and even made contacts with some competitors, who offered to sponsor him, but nothing materialized. He and Renee decided to raise a family, instead.

In 2002, Steve Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon, traveling 13 days, 8 hours and 33 minutes in the Southern hemisphere, landing and taking off from Australia.

When asked why he tried it at all, Uliassi replied, “The reason not to do it is a fear of death. The reason for doing it is a fear of not living fully.”

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