After flying the Rozière hot-air balloon, solo and nonstop around the world, for more than 11 days and over a distance of 20,502 miles (32,996 kilometers), Russian adventurer Fedor Konyukhov landed his aircraft on Saturday, 23rd July at 4:15 p.m., near the small town of Bonnie Rock, in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt.
In doing so, Konyukhov beat the 2002 record for a round-the-world hot-air balloon flight by the late American adventurer Steve Fossett. Konyukhov broke the record the moment his balloon passed over the point of longitude he had taken off from, thereby completing the circumnavigation in 11 days, five hours, and 32 minutes. (The total flight time was 11 days, eight hours, and 42 minutes.)
Fossett and Konyukhov are the only two balloon pilots to complete a solo circumnavigation. Moreover, both achieved the feat by flying in non-pressurized gondolas.
Konyukhov’s ground crew had some concerns about landing the 184-foot-tall balloon, weighing 3,520 pounds (1600 kilograms). They waited for winds to calm down before finding an ideal spot to land.
Konyukhov’s friend and balloonist Dick Smith told Australia’s ABC news that the landing was exciting. “The balloon got dragged along and the gondola got bashed around, and when it stopped, Fedor didn’t get straight out. I thought he was knocked out, but he was just waiting for it to be calm,” said Smith, describing it as a very risky undertaking.
Cold and exhausted, the aviator emerged from the pod smiling and was embraced by overjoyed friends and family members. His son Oscar described the accomplishment as a miracle.
Konyukhov, had taken off in his Rozière balloon (a combination of helium cell and hot-air balloon) named Morton from Northam in Western Australia on 12th July at 7:33 a.m. He flew around the Southern Hemisphere battling
temperatures as low as -68°F (-56°C), the thin air at high altitudes, lack of sleep, turbulence over the oceans, failure of some equipment, and the polar jet stream that blew him south to the wintry and dark Antarctic Circle.
Flight coordinator John Wallington said that throughout the mission, “the objective was to get him back on the ground safely, but of course this record is just a fantastic bonus.”
Konyukhov mostly flew at
heights between 6,000 and 10,000 meters (20,000 and 33,000 feet) above sea level at an average speed of more than 124 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour). His route was mostly over oceans, taking him over the Tasman Sea, New Zealand, Pacific Ocean, South America, the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa, Cape of Good Hope, and the Indian Ocean, before he arrived and descended in Western Australia.
American adventurer Steve Fossett had also circled the Southern Hemisphere but achieved success on his sixth attempt. Fossett had completed his round-the-world flight in 13 days, eight hours, and 23 minutes, in 2002, in his balloon Spirit of Freedom. His total flight time, however, was 14 days, 19 hours, and 50 minutes in which he covered a distance of 33,195 kilometers.
With the help of better technology, but nevertheless a perilous journey, Konyukhov succeeded on the first attempt and broke both speed and distance records.
The aeronaut had almost a 24-hour work day. During the flight, he sent data to mission control, completed navigation tasks, checked fuel calculations, read instruments, changed fuel tanks, and cleared ice from equipment. In addition, he had to keep warm, maintain his oxygen supply, eat, and sleep only in short
spurts of 30-45 minutes, for a total of four hours in 24 hours.
According to adventurer and balloonist Dick Smith, this type of balloon is very difficult to steer. “I have flown across Australia and across the Tasman Sea in a similar Rozière balloon, and you are virtually completely out of control,” Smith told Australia’s ABC.
Konyukhov’s team was preparing for the flight for two years. Despite the meticulous planning, some practical limitations surfaced only during the flight. As Konyukhov’s son Oscar explained to the media that his father was flying in a custom-built balloon and everything was experimental. ‘If something goes wrong, it can be instant and he falls like a rock.”
And some systems went wrong or just could not cope in the below freezing temperatures. Over the Atlantic Ocean, the onboard heater failed. Temperatures inside the gondola dropped to -49°F (-45°C). Frost formed throughout the gondola and his oxygen masks. Every time he exhaled, his oxygen masks would freeze solid. He would warm up one mask in his jacket and breathe through the other, while continually removing ice and condensation from them.
Then, three of the six burners were so covered in ice that they quit working, causing severe altitude changes up to 400 meters (1312 feet). But the only option was to wait and outrun the terrible conditions, as flying higher would have increased the cold and flying lower would have blown the balloon into severe bad weather.
And, the most difficult phase, which was physically and mentally tough, was still ahead of him. On the last leg of the journey, the biggest storm awaited him while crossing the Indian Ocean. Konyukhov had to navigate around a low-pressure system which was the hardest part. He could not fly above the tops of the thunderstorms, as they were too high. His balloon was sucked into thunder cells with continuous lightning around him.
Then, the polar jet stream blew the balloon south into the Antarctic Circle and temperatures outside the gondola dropped to -68°F (-56°C). He had no gondola heat for one-and-a-half day and had to thaw his frozen drinking water using the main burner. Fortunately, with instructions from Cameron Balloons engineers, he was able to de-ice the three frozen pilot lights and got all burners working.
Flying over the Southern Ocean, the dark and gloomy expanse of the Antarctic was scary and tough, even for an intrepid explorer like Konyukhov who has accomplished numerous feats of adventure on land, across the sea, and in the air. On his website, he described it as the coldest night and “scary to be down south and away from civilization. This place feels very lonely and remote. No land, no planes, no ships. Just thick layer of cyclonic clouds below me and dark horizon on the east.”
After reaching 60 degrees south, his track turned north toward Western Australia to more pleasant conditions. Now, for the first time, his team began considering the record.
To land, he had to reduce the speed to nine miles per hour (15 kph). In ballooning, changing speed is only possible by finding and maneuvering up or down into the right wind current, if available.
“There are so many wind currents and direction changes around the world… The fact that he came right back across the northern fields that he took off from– no one has ever done that. It’s so incredibly rare, that it’s about a one in a billion chance,” said Smith, who was the first to congratulate and embrace him.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) or The World Air Sports Federation has congratulated Fedor Konyukhov and his team on the fantastic achievement, but the organization is also waiting for the official claims to be sent in by the FAI Official Observers John Wallington and his Assistant Don Cameron in order to ratify the records.
Besides Fossett and Konyukhov, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones together completed a circumnavigation around the Northern Hemisphere in a Rozière balloon in 15 days, ten hours, and 24 minutes, in 1999 and on their third attempt. Their total flight time was 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes in which they covered a distance
of 25,361 miles (40,815 kms) by flying in a pressurized gondola of their balloon Breitling Orbiter 3.
Konyukhov also has other world records for endurance and bravery. Along with Ivan Menyaylo, he holds the world record for the longest flight in a hot-air balloon. In January 2016, the duo flew for more than 32 hours in Central Russia. Their record broke the 1993 record set by American William Bussey who had flown more than 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) in 29 hours and 14 minutes, from Amarillo, Texas, to Milbank, South Dakota.
Well known for his skills as a boat man, at 15, Konyukhov crossed the Azov Sea on a rowboat from his hometown in what is now Ukraine to Russia. His many maritime expeditions across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans also include a solo journey in a rowboat across the Pacific that lasted 160 days.
Konyukhov has also trekked to the North and South Poles and successfully climbed the seven summits—highest mountains of each of the seven continents. He has completed the Iditarod dog race and also traveled the Great Silk Road by camel. He is also an artist, a writer, and a Russian Orthodox priest.