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Record-setting balloonist Brian Jones speaks Monday at the Virginia Aviation Museum. 

Around the World in 20 Days

Brian Jones of England and Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland traveled 28,000 miles at 36,000 feet. In a sealed box. For 20 days.

Thank goodness for Baby Wipes.

Hygiene actually was the least of the challenges Jones and Piccard faced in making the first nonstop balloon trip around the world. Their March 1999 feat, perhaps the last of man's great voyages, also overcame political delays, personnel changes and the mechanics and meteorology of threading between storms and the airspace of hostile nations. (Balloonists have been shot down and killed, as were two Americans over Belarus in 1995). But when their Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon touched down in Egypt, they joined the ranks of Magellan, Lindbergh and Armstrong.

Thanks to watchmaker Breitling and other sponsors, they also earned enough to start a charity foundation, which recently donated $100,000 to the World Health Organization. This year, Jones also directed the first successful solo balloon flight to the North Pole. He will speak and show a video of his March 1999 journey at the Virginia Aviation Museum Oct. 30. The 7 p.m. event is free but reservations are required (call sponsor Schwarzschild Jewelers at 644-1941).

Style telephoned the 53-year-old Royal Air Force veteran last week at his home in the village of Erlestoke in southern England.

Style: Why circle the earth in a balloon?

Jones: The short answer is, of course, that it had never been done. Both Bertrand and I have always been passionate about ballooning. I've been a professional balloon pilot for quite some time. It was a calculated risk and an adventure with all the ingredients you could wish: science, technology, nature, fabulous views. And there was a strong personal relationship that made it work. I don't know if this was the perfect adventure, the last great adventure, but it must have come close to it.

Style: What was it like inside the gondola?

Jones: It was about the size of a small camper van, so it wasn't that bad. We didn't have any problem at all. Not a single cross word passed between us. Of course, we got a little touchy with our ground crew from time to time. … And the smell really wasn't that bad. Because we had the ability to change clothes, it wasn't like a polar expedition or a mountain climb. We did take along a lot of these Baby Wipes, and the capsule smelled quite fresh, I have to say, even after three weeks.

Style: What was the scariest part of the trip?

Jones: The greatest fear we had was over the Pacific. We were having some fairly major mechanical problems and lost communications for about two days, right near these terrific storms. We'd look out our little porthole and see the storm clouds. Everything was shaking and tossing about. It was fairly stressful for about five days there. Also, unknown to us, we were being suffocated with carbon dioxide poisoning. We realized it just in time, and we later learned that we were within hours of going to sleep and not waking up.

Style: What surprised you about the trip?

Jones: I've been ballooning for quite some time, but I'd never flown a balloon overnight before. It's extremely rare for anybody to do that. It was difficult to sleep initially because of the excitement, then later the stress, but eventually we got so tired we'd go straight to sleep just closing our eyes.

Style: Has there been a letdown now that you've accomplished your goal?

Jones: It hasn't been an anticlimax in any way. There have been so many positive things to come out of this flight, including our charity foundation. It's opened up opportunities that we never dreamed of. We've met heads of state, film stars. And of course now my phone rings off the hook with people who want to do wacky things. At the moment I'm helping organize the [around-the-world balloon race] for 2002. But I'm most proud of our foundation, Winds of Hope. It's our way of saying thank-you to whoever or whatever got us all the way
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