Type: manned high altitude balloon system
Significant date: 1996
In 1986 Dick Rutan and Jeanie Yeager became the first to pilot an aircraft, Voyager, around the world non-stop, non-refueled. Rutan then wanted to add to his firsts by making the first around-the-world flight by balloon, and first presented his Aeolus 1 project in June 1994, stating he had already worked on the project for several years. Initially, the flight was to be done solo, in an AM11 Rozière-type balloon built by Cameron, with a capsule of Rutan's own design. With the winter 95-96 weather window closed for the teams headed by Branson, Brink, and Fossett, Rutan believed that he could be ready to attempt his flight by November 96.
Aeolus 1 was designed to capture a significant aviation milestone; the first ever, non-stop balloon flight around the world. This unique record flight was to be directed by virtually the same team that made the Voyager’s unrefueled world flight a success in 1986. Voyager’s record flight took 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, and the aircraft is now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air And Space Museum in our nation’s capitol.
Aeolus 1 (pronounced EEL-us is the mythical Greek God of wind) was designed with a relatively small, two member crew capsule. It featured overall system simplicity, a photo voltaic electrical system, and had virtually no moving parts other than a series of three fans for environmental control. A "jet stream" flight level of 32,000 to 38,000 feet was planned. The balloon would have the ability to descend into favorable jet stream flow and climb out when that flow would become unfavorable. Aeolus 1 was to use a fully pressurized Kevlar carbon fiber capsule and a "closed loop cycle" life support system similar to the early Mercury-Gemini space flight capsules. The pressurization/life support details were proprietary at the time, but based on simplicity and reliability.
The Aeolus 1 Project goal was to have a flight-ready system by November of 1996. The most favorable launch weather window was from November through March, when the high speed, Northern hemisphere eastward flowing jet stream drops farther south, thus making a winter flight most practical. The goal was to be the first to fully circumnavigate the globe without landing or refueling. In using a highly efficient, free-flight, hybrid balloon and a small, two crew pressurized capsule that goal now seemed within reach. One possible launch site considered then was Tillamook, Oregon located 124x west longitude. To achieve the goal of world circumnavigation, the balloon must launch, fly east around the world and land somewhere past that same meridian.
The Aeolus 1 team brought together the wealth of knowledge and experience gained throughout the Voyager’s world flight project ranging from the human factors of long duration flight, to systems reliability, world weather, and world net communications. The project director was Dick Rutan, who already held over 20 world, speed and distance records and had spent virtually a lifetime flying. Rutan was a fully qualified, FAA certified commercial L-T-A Free Balloon pilot, and the owner and frequent flyer of his own Raven RX- 7 hot air balloon.
The expertise in design of the crew capsule, its construction and systems was in the hands of brother Burt Rutan, who had also designed and built the Voyager aircraft. Weather expert was Len Snellman, who was the chief meteorologist for Voyager’s success. He predicted it would take 12-14 days for the balloon to "drift" around the world at the planned flight level. Since any balloon can only climb or descend in search of favorable winds, plans called for a flight vehicle capable of a minimum 20 day flight duration in order to maximize the chance of success on the first attempt.
Most of the key personnel from the original Voyager world flight project were available, including specialists in weather, communications, medical, ground support, performance, etc. Aeolus 1 was therefore the only team vying for the balloon record that has successful world flight experience.
The initial round of ‘live’ tests on the "closed loop cycle" life support system using a home built altitude chamber dubbed Aeolus 1/2 was first completed. This allowed thorough ‘on-ground’ testing of the life support equipment (control-monitoring-warning) and verified the specific crew oxygen and LIOH usage rates at the actual 8.1 psi 16,000 foot operational capsule altitude. The team monitored and collected data on crew SpO2, Capsule O2, CO2, humidity, temperature and specific electrical consumption to verify the 20 day duration capability of the actual air vehicle. In addition, during the ‘on-ground’ tests, flight surgeons could closely supervise the crew’s adaptability and potential medical needs.
Systems testing in this in-house, ground level altitude chamber could dramatically reduce chances of equipment failure and contribute immensely to crew safety and systems reliability. Systems thoroughly tested were the key to success. Rutan’s team had spent over two years, 367 flight test hours in the Voyager before they were even remotely ready to try the world flight. Rutan said that he planned on at least 4-6- multi day high altitude flights to qualify his systems.
The atmosphere within the actual flight capsule was to have a slightly elevated oxygen percentage, thus providing the crew a partial pressure of oxygen equivalent to sea level. Scientific evaluations of upper atmosphere and earth resources would also be conducted during the flight. The balloon lifting envelope was a "Rozière" balloon system, the most efficient method of dealing with the day/night thermal cycle. The balloon was to be built by Cameron Balloons UK.
The lightweight composite capsule was designed and built by Scaled Composites, Inc. (Burt Rutan’s company), and the systems installation and testing were carried out by the Aeolus I team working closely with Burt and his engineers. The highly insulated composite capsule was an excellent survival ‘cocoon’ whether landing at sea, in the desert or even in Arctic conditions. It would be equipped with a SARSAT satellite recovery beacon for immediate location anywhere on earth. Since the end of the cold war, Rutan felt that there was no longer the problem of forbidden overflight of some foreign countries. Besides, the new satellite navigation/communications systems eliminated the problems one might have had just a few short years ago.
The remaining hardware, life support capsule, weather monitoring equipment, launch support team, communication command post, etc. would be organized, built, and tested in Mojave, California. It was planned that, near the end of October 1996, the entire flight system and launch personnel would be transported to the launch site where the balloon could be safely inflated and stored until suitable launch conditions. The focus was on light, simple, safe and reliable systems. The goal was simply to "fly" the balloon non-stop around the world, land safely-and be the first team to do it.
Eventually, the Aeolus 1 never attempted the record as such, but the following year, Dick Rutan designed the capsule for the Global Hilton, whose purpose was the same as Aeolus'.
Record... or milestone?
The Aeolus I Project existed only to try to capture the (arguably) last remaining aviation milestone of non-stop round-the-world balloon flight. It is important to define the difference between a milestone and a world record. All aviation "records" set are due to be broken as we improve technology. Any and all current records will eventually fade into obscurity. However, milestones are unique. Whoever accomplishes the milestone first gets to keep it forever; their name will always be attached. Of course you will also set a record while completing the milestone, and the record will probably someday be broken, but the ‘milestone’ will always be yours. Examples of this are: Lindbergh’s New York to Paris trip in 1927, Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in 1947, the first moon landing of Apollo 11 in 1969, and yes, even the first non-stop, unrefueled world flight of the Voyager aircraft. Each of the machines attached to those events are now proudly on display in The Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), Washington, DC.