The Final Frontier
Dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved golf shirt, his face flushed with sun and wind, Dave Liniger roams his Denver Tech Center offices this sultry summer morning with more than the usual bounce in his step. When you own the company, you can wear whatever you want to work, and Liniger has just come from a hot-air-balloon lesson high above Chatfield Reservoir.
As it happens, this was Liniger's first attempt at flying a balloon. Contrary to recent press reports--including a front-page Denver Post story that described him as "a balloonist since 1978"--he's an absolute novice. His company, Re/Max International, has no less than 88 hot-air balloons available for promotional and charity events, the largest corporate fleet of gasbags in the world. Its red-white-and-blue balloon logo is one of the best-known company symbols in North America, adorning the signs and business cards of more than 50,000 real-estate agents. Yet until today, the kinetic chairman of the board has been too busy pursuing his other passions--scuba diving, big-game hunting, racing on the NASCAR circuit, raising Arabian horses, flying fixed-wing planes, building his own golf course and overseeing one of the largest and most successful real-estate networks on the planet--to take one of his balloons for a spin.
"I never really had the time," he says. "I went up for ten minutes for a photo shoot once. That was it. But today, getting to run the burners and make it go up and down--man, it was great."
Liniger is making the time now because he has only six months to get comfortable with lighter-than-air craft before embarking on the ride of his life. In May he announced plans to sponsor a multi-million-dollar attempt to circle the globe in a balloon. It's something no one has ever done, although several men have died trying. The mission, dubbed Team Re/Max and scheduled to take off from Alice Springs, Australia, in December, will be piloted by John Wallington, 42, an Australian balloonist; Bob Martin, 44, a television helicopter pilot and reporter in Albuquerque; and Dave Liniger, 52, adventurer.
Liniger isn't the only rich amateur eager to risk his well-insured neck in a round-the-world balloon trip. There's something about the idea--the elemental challenge, perhaps, or the Vernean romance of it--that seems to attract such men. Virgin Records mogul Richard Branson and investment broker Steve Fossett are among the moneyed competitors who have attempted the feat in recent years, only to be defeated by equipment failures, bad weather, the refusal of hostile nations to grant overflight permissions, or all three. Liniger's obsession runs as deep, if not deeper. Despite his lack of experience, he's been kicking around the notion of a record-setting global flight for more than a decade.
What is startling, though, is the way Team Re/Max has decided to go about it; it's enough to give even veteran aeronauts the willies. All of the other teams currently vying for the circumnavigation record (at last count, there were five of them) are flying at altitudes of around 30,000 to 40,000 feet, at or just below the powerful wind system known as the jetstream that girdles the globe. Team Re/Max has a different approach--one that NASA has used for years in conducting scientific research but that has never before been used in a manned around-the-world flight.
Taking a cue from the company slogan, "Above the Crowd," Liniger and his co-pilots intend to launch a helium balloon that, when fully inflated, will be taller than most skyscrapers and wider than the Houston Astrodome. They plan to fly it to an altitude of 130,000 feet, almost 25 miles above the earth's surface. And they hope to survive up there, sailing at the upper reaches of the stratosphere, in a pressurized, insulated gondola smaller than one of Dave Liniger's closets, for the sixteen to eighteen days it will require to travel 22,800 miles around the world.
The environment at 130,000 feet, what there is of it, isn't exactly conducive to human activity. For every thousand molecules of oxygen available at sea level, there might be four at that height. During the day, solar radiation will heat any unprotected surface close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, while at night, temperatures could plunge to more than 100 degrees below zero.
"This is the first civilian space mission in history," Liniger says. "The biggest concern we have is rapid decompression. If we were to blow a porthole or have a seam explode on us, our mission would be over in three to five seconds. At that altitude, your blood boils."
But Liniger believes that the high-tech, high-altitude route has an advantage over other circumnavigation attempts, because it means tapping into more reliable winds than the volatile jetstream and avoiding the storms found at lower altitudes. Despite the obvious dangers of the venture--which include not only the possibility of failure in the gondola's life-support systems but a host of hazards associated with launching and landing the balloon--he insists that there's nothing foolhardy about it.
"There are no old, bold pilots," he says. "The stupid ones get killed off pretty quick. This is not a daredevil deal. This is a very logical, methodical, scientific approach to this."
But is it logical to include a novice balloonist on such a daring flight? Other members of the team say that Liniger brings more to the mission than simply cash and enthusiasm, including his considerable organizational skills.
"Certainly, it's a very forbidding place to go," says co-pilot Bob Martin. "There are mistakes you can make there that are immediately fatal. But Dave is a quick study in technical issues. He already knows navigation, meteorology, principles of flight--with just a few flights, he'll be very proficient in ballooning. I have absolute confidence that he's going to understand the workings of that balloon just as well as John and I."
The potential rewards of the project are as formidable as the risks. Anheuser-Busch has offered a $1 million prize to the balloon team that first makes it around the world, half of which must be donated to charity, but that's chump change compared to the value of the worldwide media attention Re/Max stands to reap from a successful flight. And, of course, the first pilot or pilots to circle the world will have gained a place in the aviation record books, right up there with the Wright brothers and Lucky Lindy.
But in Liniger's case, it would be a mistake to regard the flight as a mere exercise in canny sponsorship or a bid for fame. Behind the bravado is the kind of executive grit, the drive to be first in everything, that used to figure large in the annals of corporate America but now is rarely mentioned. Liniger's resolve and hunger for achievement, his towering confidence in his own instincts, and his ability to assemble the resources to make something happen are the same qualities that have made his real-estate franchising scheme a much-studied success story. Those closest to him in his company say that the chairman's announcement that he was going to send himself into the stratosphere didn't surprise them at all.
"For those of us who know him, it wasn't that startling," says Daryl Jesperson, president of Re/Max International, who's worked with Liniger for 25 years. "Dave's a real adventurous guy. He's not the kind of person who will sit and read a book on a beach. You'd get tired following him around for two days."
Jesperson says his boss has a love of big projects--the more challenging, the better. "When he gets an interest in something," he says, "he totally immerses himself in it. Dave never undertakes anything unless he can put everything he's got into it."
If flying around the world in a balloon was as easy as a round of golf, then Dave Liniger would have nothing to worry about. Still, how Liniger became a golf nut--and wound up as the proprietor of the most exclusive golf course in the country--says something about his approach to the Team Re/Max flight, too.
Unlike most other corporate honchos, Liniger came late to the links. It wasn't until he and his wife, Gail, the co-founder of Re/Max, moved into their dream house in Castle Pines a few years ago that Liniger began to notice the duffers on the course next door.
"I thought golf was for sissies," he recalls. "I walk a lot to try to lose a little weight, and I kept watching these fools banging this ball around."
Finally he decided to try his hand at it, just to see what the fuss was about. After nine holes he was hooked. Learning the game, he says, was "the toughest thing I've ever done." He loaded up on books and videos, laboring to improve his stroke. Over time he shaved his handicap and regularly breaks 100. And from that first day, he says, he never stopped thinking about a piece of property he'd previously tried to buy in Douglas County for his Arabian horse operations--an unspoiled parcel of 220 acres surrounded by thousands of acres of open space, park land and a private wildlife sanctuary. That land, he told himself, would make one hell of a golf course.
After years of effort and an investment of millions, Liniger got the land and the course of his dreams, called Sanctuary. Designed by local architect Jim Engh, the highly private course features waterfalls, massive pines and jaw-dropping views of the Front Range, but it has none of the moneymaking features one might expect--no adjacent subdivisions and no country-clubbers other than Dave and Gail Liniger. The Linigers open Sanctuary to only a handful of charity tournaments each year; naturally, the owners can play through any time they want. Last year Golf Digest named Sanctuary the best new private course in the country, and Liniger plans to keep it that way.
"I'm never going to put houses on it," he says. Although he's thought about selling memberships, he says he'll probably price them high--around $200,000 a pop--in order to keep the numbers down and preserve fast play. Besides, Dave Liniger, the garrulous leader who cheerleads at conventions attended by thousands of Re/Max agents, the marketing whiz who motivates legions to go out there and clobber the competition, is a guy who likes his privacy.
"Most people don't realize it, but I'm very, very shy," he says. "I get on an airplane next to somebody and I never talk to them. I fly 270 days a year, and I can't tell you the last person I met on an airplane."
The story of Sanctuary is emblematic of Liniger's way of doing things: Get an idea, pursue it relentlessly, assemble the best talent you can find, and never, never give up. It's also the way his company came to transform the real-estate industry.
Liniger came to entrepreneurship almost by default. He grew up in Indiana, dropped out of the state university after a year and a half, served in the Air Force in Vietnam, and came back to the States with a vague ambition to become a real-estate investor. In the early 1970s he moved to Phoenix and started buying up $10,000 houses for $500 down. Then he figured he could save on the commissions if he got a real-estate license. Then he thought he might as well join a local agency and try to hustle some commissions of his own.
"I looked at some of the people in the office where I hung the license, and I thought, 'These are losers,'" he recalls. "The quality [of agent] was very low compared to today. I struggled for six months and couldn't make it work."
A short, skinny part-timer who took prospects around the desert in a Volkswagen that lacked air conditioning, Liniger didn't seem to have a prayer in the real-estate business. He was ready to pack it in but decided he might as well go to a final industry event he'd already paid for, a lecture by motivational speaker Dave Stone. Stone's smooth, confident presentation unlocked something in Liniger.
"I bought all his books and tapes," he says. "That same night I bumped into a customer and made a sale. I went out and bought a new car, which made me look more successful. In the next two days I made four more sales. I had all the confidence in the world. I never looked back."
Liniger came to believe that the reason his office was full of losers had to do with the compensation structure. In the traditional real-estate office, agents split their commission, usually on a 50-50 basis, with the broker in exchange for office space and services. The more sales you made, the more you forked over to the boss--in effect, subsidizing the rest of the crew. A company that allowed agents to keep all of their commissions and charged only a flat monthly fee for management services and office expenses would attract top producers, he reasoned; those marginal agents who couldn't make the monthly fee would be weeded out, and the company would come to dominate the market.
It was not an entirely new idea, but no one had tried it on the nationwide scale that Liniger envisioned. Long on chutzpah but short on cash, he moved to Denver and launched his own shop, calling it Re/Max, shorthand for "real-estate maximums," the kind of commission he planned to offer.
"I was very naive," he says now. "I thought this was the greatest idea in the world, that we'd have thousands of agents coming to us within a year. But we made a lot of mistakes."
Liniger's first hire was a marketing executive named Gail Main, who would later become his wife and CEO (Liniger has four grown children from a previous marriage). Over the next month he interviewed more than two hundred potential sales associates; only four agreed to stake their paychecks on Liniger's innovative plan. After two years, Re/Max had only 42 agents, and creditors and the IRS were breathing down Liniger's neck.
"There were a lot of opportunities to give up," recalls Daryl Jesperson, part of the original core of employees. "But we just didn't quit. If you stick with it, you figure out ways to get around obstacles. You burrow under them, jump over them, whatever. It's the 25-year 'overnight success' thing."
Gradually the word got out that Re/Max agents could make considerably more money than agents in a traditional brokerage. The Linigers began to franchise the concept, selling a package of products and services--training programs, a referral system, advertising support, corporate relocation services--to independently owned offices around the country. As the network grew, so did the franchise fees and the monthly management fees the agents paid to brokers, regional offices and company headquarters.
The parent company, Re/Max International, is still privately held by the Linigers and doesn't disclose its income. But in 1985, Forbes magazine estimated the surging franchiser's annual revenues at close to $8 million; the network has since quadrupled in size and now has nearly 3,000 offices in 24 countries. Although its boast of being the top real-estate network in the world has been disputed by Century 21--it has more agents, while Re/Max claims to handle more transactions--there's no question that Liniger's gamble has paid off spectacularly. The key, he says, was not tossing in the towel during the rocky start-up years virtually every entrepreneur must endure.
"We struggled at first," he says. "But once you have profits and you can hire talent, you can do anything."
Ballooning has played a key role in Re/Max's promotional strategy for nearly twenty years, but it wasn't a case of love at first sight. In 1977, when one of his franchisers first came to him with the idea of adopting a hot-air balloon as the corporate logo, Liniger turned him down.
"I told him, 'Nah, this has nothing to do with selling real estate,'" he says.
He did, however, give his blessing to the idea of putting the Re/Max name on a balloon that could be used for grand openings and other promotional events. A year later, while attending a corporate meeting in Chicago, Liniger walked into a hotel bar and saw the Re/Max balloon on television. The Dinah Shore Show was broadcasting live from the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, and the program was using a shot of the balloon every time it cut to and from commercial breaks.
Liniger was understandably pleased, but he still didn't think the balloon was much of a symbol for a down-to-earth real-estate company. Then he saw the results of a survey that suggested his company had an image problem. Re/Max was by now the largest real-estate company in Colorado in terms of sales volume, but the survey indicated that it ranked only eighth in consumer recognition, well below old-guard companies like Van Schaack and Moore.
By hitting up his franchisees, Liniger was able to raise $180,000 for an advertising campaign. But the television stations wanted $250,000 to make a commercial spot, and that didn't include the air time required to get the message out. So Re/Max made its own commercial, sending the company balloon floating across the Denver skyline and filming it from a small plane. After an eight-week advertising blitz, consumer awareness of the company and its "Above the Crowd" slogan had--so to speak--soared, and the balloon quickly became the pervasive corporate logo.
The high-flying symbol was also suggestive of the chairman's adrenaline-pumping lifestyle. As the company grew, Liniger found he had the means to indulge his hankering for adventure. He and Gail piloted their own plane, went on safari in Africa, taught friends how to scuba dive in the Caribbean. The quest has had its terrifying moments--Dave has broken a few ribs hitting the wall while racing on the NASCAR circuit, and in 1983 Gail nearly died in a seaplane crash, which left her partially paralyzed--but none of the mishaps have changed their idea of fun.
"My personal philosophy is that life is an adventure, a collection of memories," Dave Liniger says. "Some people collect things. They need to have more toys than anybody else. Well, I have two or three nice cars, but I don't even know what years they are. I could care less. Life really comes down to two things: your personal relationships and your personal accomplishments."
Although he was more enamored of motorized flight than hot air, Liniger came into contact with a number of balloonists interested in having Re/Max sponsor one flight or another. The one that caught his attention, though, was a proposal first raised over dinner one night in 1988 by ballooning legend Chauncey Dunn.
Dunn had served as Malcolm Forbes's pilot. He had flown over the Alps and the Andes and had considerable experience in gas and hot-air balloons. In 1979 he had set a world record for highest altitude in a hot-air balloon, reaching 53,256 feet in an open gondola, sucking on pressurized oxygen while he bled from his eyes and nose. At the time Liniger met him, he was keenly interested in flying a balloon around the world.
Dunn had spent time talking to scientists from NASA, which had been sending large helium balloons into the stratosphere to conduct atmospheric research since the early 1960s. Launched primarily from a site outside Palestine, Texas, the balloons carried payloads of 5,000 pounds or more, consisting of scientific instruments designed to study cosmic rays and meteorological conditions. Some of the flights had even gone around the world.
True, no one had ever landed such a balloon--when the mission ended, the payload was cut loose and brought down by parachute, while, ideally, the balloon envelope deflated harmlessly. And NASA's flights were unmanned: A few gutsy test pilots had ballooned into the stratosphere in the 1950s and early 1960s as a prelude to the space program, but none of those missions involved the kind of altitude or duration Dunn was talking about. Dunn believed the technology had advanced sufficiently to allow for a manned flight, one that wouldn't have to fight the storms and vagaries of the jetstream to succeed.
Liniger was fascinated by the idea. He wanted to be on that flight with Dunn. But before they could work out the details, Dunn's wife was diagnosed with cancer and he shelved the project. Liniger, though, kept thinking about it. Last year, as the race to be the first around the world heated up--three different teams trying the jetstream approach launched in January 1997 alone--he put together a research team to look into the feasibility of a stratospheric flight.
"We really weren't interested in sponsoring someone else," Liniger says now. "I wanted to make the flight solo. Every scientist that my people talked to said, 'This will work.' Every balloonist they talked to said, 'This is crazy; this will never work.'"
Liniger wasn't the only person looking at the stratosphere, however. Albuquerque science reporter Bob Martin had been trying to get a similar venture off the ground since the late 1980s, ever since he became familiar with the government's balloon program while covering stories at New Mexico State University's Particle Astrophysics Laboratory (PAL), which contracts with NASA to operate its ballooning facility in Texas. Martin's project, known as Odyssey Expedition and then as the Dymocks Flyer in honor of an Australian bookstore chain that provided some sponsorship, planned to sail around the Southern Hemisphere, skirting the hostile-nations problem by flying mostly over water. But five years after the trip was first announced, the project was still short of funds.
"It was very difficult to find enough money to do it right," says Kevin Roark, the public-relations director for the project for the past five years, who estimates that the flight will cost from $1.5 million to more than $2 million. "A lot of the money came from Bob Martin knocking on doors and collecting it one dollar at a time. I can't tell you how many Lions Club and Rotary Club meetings he went to, just to keep the thing alive, while we looked for a main sponsor."
Martin's group already had a partially completed gondola, a welded aluminum cylinder eight feet in diameter, with two hatches and several windows. Re/Max had the cash to become the chief sponsor. A deal was quickly struck. "This was a shortcut," Liniger says. "It meant three pilots instead of one, but you need at least two for safety, and three is much better."
Liniger hadn't even met Martin's other co-pilot, John Wallington, at the time he signed on for the flight. But Roark says that the gondola was designed for three pilots--Martin's original partners dropped out as the fundraising dragged on--and that the three men will be spending considerably more time together in the coming months. Extensive training, testing and planning remains to be done before the scheduled December takeoff, during a three-week "launch window" when weather conditions and the stratospheric winds in the Southern Hemisphere are optimal for the flight.
"We're all very safety-conscious," says Liniger, who expects to get along fabulously with his co-pilots while squeezed into a single-cot, showerless capsule for close to three weeks. "I'm not easily rattled. I drive NASCAR every weekend, and when you're inches off forty of your closest friends at 160 to 200 miles per hour, you've got to be fairly calm about what you're doing."
Re/Max president Jesperson is taken by the "symbolism" of the proposed flight, which he regards as a perfect expression of Liniger's own corporate style. "Re/Max is a very unconventional company," he notes. "We do a lot of things differently. Everyone else who's trying to go around the world in a balloon is doing it in the Northern Hemisphere, heading from west to east. We're doing it in the Southern Hemisphere, heading from east to west--at 130,000 feet. It's out-of-the-box thinking."
Whether such thinking could end up putting someone in a box is another matter. "We do have variables tied to life support and being in a near-space environment," Roark acknowledges. "We have to be ready for all kinds of emergency situations, and we're flying mostly over water. But to me, it seems so technically difficult to go around the world in the jetstream. You leave an awful lot up to luck. All we have to do is get [to 130,000 feet] and stay there, and the winds will take us around."
He adds, "I'm really at a loss why we're the only ones going this way."
On August 16, 1960, an Air Force test pilot named Joe Kittinger jumped out of a balloon at an altitude of 103,000 feet. Wearing a leaky pressurized suit, he was in freefall for more than four and a half minutes before he reached a sufficiently benign region of the atmosphere to safely deploy his main parachute. At one point his rate of descent exceeded six hundred miles per hour, close to the speed of sound in the troposphere, earning him the reputation of being "the only person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle."
Kittinger survived his record-setting experience. Other pioneering balloonists, trying to go higher or farther than anyone else--or both--haven't always been so fortunate.
The dream of traveling the world in a balloon dates back at least two hundred years, but in the past two decades it's become more tangible--ever since 1978, when Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman demonstrated that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in their craft, the Double Eagle II. Anderson went on to make several unsuccessful tries to circle the world and died in his fourth attempt, in 1983, when a faulty clamp resulted in a crash landing in Europe.
Larry Newman made five attempts between 1991 and 1995 in an unusual hourglass-shaped craft with helium in the top envelope and a pressurized airbag for ballast beneath the gondola. A variety of equipment and weather problems kept thwarting him--during one flight, a mountain peak tore a hole in the ballast balloon--until his sponsor, Hilton Hotels, which had sunk more than $8 million in the project, pulled out.
In recent years, all of the global attempts have taken advantage of improvements in roziere balloons, a hybrid technology that combines the best of hot-air and gas ballooning. Hot-air balloons use propane burners to heat the air in the balloon but are considered unfeasible for long flights because of the amount of fuel required. Gas balloons use a lighter-than-air gas, usually helium, and throw off ballast to rise higher or slow the rate of descent--but their range is limited, too, by the amount of ballast they can carry. Roziere systems use a "cone" of hot air at the mouth of the envelope to heat the helium above, particularly at night, when cool temperatures cause conventional gas balloons to contract and lose altitude, requiring the expenditure of more ballast to keep on course.
With rozieres, global competitors have managed to set new records for distance and duration. Launching from St. Louis and flying solo, Beaver Creek commodities broker Steve Fossett made it as far as India in 1997 and to southern Russia last January. (Fossett, whose low-tech, unsponsored flights have cost him around $400,000 each, has announced that he will make a fourth try at the circumnavigation record from Argentina within the next week or two.) A Swiss-Belgian team, Breitling Orbiter 2, flew from Switzerland to Burma earlier this year, staying aloft for an unprecedented ten days before running out of fuel.
"We're nearing the apex of the learning curve," says Roark of Team Re/Max. "Sooner or later, somebody is going to figure out how to do it. What with Fossett going halfway around on his second try and getting all the way to Russia last time, it's becoming evident that somebody's going to do it, and it's going to happen fairly soon."
But the roziere crowd has had its share of setbacks, too. Richard Branson's Virgin Global Challenger, probably the best-financed of all the ventures, has been plagued with equipment failures. This year two American attempts were aborted within hours of their launch when their helium cells burst as they ascended. Other flights have been cut short by treacherous launch conditions, icing, leaky fuel lines, fuel exhaustion caused by having to maneuver out of the way of storms or countries that refuse overflight permission, and so on.
Does that mean that Liniger's stratospheric venture has an edge over the others? "It's a tough race to handicap," says Tom Hamilton, editor of Balloon Life magazine. "All of these guys are inventing the wheel. We haven't worked out the technology for that long of a balloon flight yet."
Hamilton, whose publication has a circulation of 3,500 and caters to the true enthusiasts of the sport ("Special Report: Power Line Avoidance"), says the race comes down to three factors: weather, equipment and experience. Assuming a successful launch, Team Re/Max has the weather factor licked, he says; there's not much weather, or anything else, at 130,000 feet.
But a stratospheric flight also requires more specialized equipment, he notes: "To take a balloon to that kind of altitude puts a lot more demand on the system, and every one of these projects has failed because of an equipment problem of some type."
As for the human factor, Hamilton gives the nod to Branson's Virgin Global Challenger and Fossett's Solo Spirit. "If you look at the expertise involved, Branson's team you have to rate pretty high," he says. "You have to give good marks to Fossett, too; he certainly has the experience now, probably more than anyone else in long-distance ballooning." For Team Re/Max to succeed, he adds, "it's going to take a tremendous amount of mental and physical ability."
And maybe some dumb luck. Liniger and his associates will benefit from NASA's long experience in stratospheric ballooning--they will use the same kind of envelope NASA uses, and their support team includes several key figures involved in the operations of the National Scientific Ballooning Facility. But even with all the testing of its equipment the group plans over the next few months, some questions will remain right up until launch time. For example, the soundness of the envelope itself, which is made of a thin polyethylene film and will expand to an astonishing 39.5 million cubic feet at cruising altitude, can't be tested in actual flight conditions beforehand; because of the nature of the material, it can be inflated only once.
"To an extent, its first flight is its test flight," says Bob Martin. "We can only fly it one time. But I think the tests we have planned will give us a high confidence factor."
Just getting the balloon off the ground will be no mean feat. Standing the massive envelope up--nearly 700 feet tall at full expansion--in any kind of surface wind will be tricky and will require an experienced launch crew. NASA has launched several balloons from Australia without incident, but then, not even Liniger has NASA's resources. "If NASA tried to do what we're doing, it would cost half a billion dollars," Roark says.
The graver dangers, though, await the team in the stratosphere. Their lives will then be in the hands of the life-support equipment in the gondola, which resembles Gemini-era technology rather than space-shuttle sophistication. The air in the tight quarters must be scrubbed constantly in order to prevent buildup of carbon dioxide, the oxygen levels constantly monitored, excess humidity reduced by a condenser cooling system. Reflective paint, special insulation and the aeronauts' own body heat should help to buffer the temperature extremes, but even the project's "gondola operations director" says it won't be a comfortable ride.
"It's not going to be possible to keep it at a steady seventy degrees," says Robert Hull, project manager for New Mexico State's PAL operation. "It could get pretty cold right before dawn--down to zero degrees and even colder."
Liniger says the group plans to take along plenty of spare parts, some of which could be used as ballast if the original equipment holds up as planned. The basic design of the gondola is sound, he insists--with the possible exception of the portholes. One window cracked recently after a Popular Science photographer had been shooting pictures through it using a very hot lamp. Hull says that his people are investigating the problem and that the gondola will undergo extensive testing in vacuum chambers in New Mexico and at Lockheed Martin in Colorado.
Even if Team Re/Max survives nearly three weeks in near-space without suffocating, freezing, roasting--or strangling each other over breaches of camp-toilet etiquette--there's still the landing to consider. Liniger has done just that. "The riskiest part is coming down," he says.
Every night, cooling temperatures will cause the helium to contract and drop the balloon as much as 50,000 feet below its daytime altitude. The crew hopes to make its descent right before dawn, when the balloon is already a third of the way back to Earth. But taking a cold helium bag into the warmer air below will accelerate the descent rate, and the trio's timing in releasing ballast--1,300 pounds of glass beads that look like sand, leftover water and supplies, whatever--will be critical in preventing a crash. Computer models have been done to calculate a smooth descent, but the fact remains that no one has ever landed a balloon this big before. And once they reach lower altitudes, Team Re/Max will be as vulnerable to capricious weather as the next aeronaut.
The gondola has its own parachute if it's necessary to cut the balloon loose. It's supposed to be seaworthy, too, in the event Team Re/Max misses Australia and is forced to ditch in the ocean. But it's also possible that one or more of the pilots will have to parachute down, like Joe Kittinger did. Martin has extensive skydiving experience--more than 300 jumps under his belt--but Liniger hasn't jumped out of a plane since his Air Force days. Skydiving lessons are just one more component in the training regimen he plans to undergo in the next few months to get his slightly portly 52-year-old body in shape for the flight.
Liniger says that every possible hazard of the flight will be coolly examined before the launch but that there's no sense in wringing his hands over it, any more than there is in worrying about whether someone else might grab the circumnavigation record first. "We're not doing this thing to fail," he says. "We're doing it to succeed."
Other people do fret about what Liniger is proposing--including Chauncey Dunn, the man who first came to Liniger with the idea of sailing the stratosphere. Now 66 years old, his circumnavigation plans behind him, Dunn says he has several concerns about the mission, from the shape of the gondola ("A sphere is fifty times stronger than a cylinder," he says) to the average age of the pilots ("Your respiratory system just goes to hell after 22 years of age") to the possible chemistry among the three men ("When you're in a closet with two other guys for three weeks, personalities really come out--it can be disastrous"). Also, in his view, the ideal altitude for the flight would be even higher than Team Re/Max plans to go, around 150,000 feet, in order not to lose the strong winds in the upper stratosphere when the balloon drops at night.
But what really troubles him is a more delicate matter. "The lack of experience in that group really bothers me," Dunn says. Although he was willing to take Liniger along himself ten years ago, he questions whether Martin (who has more than 2,400 hours of flight time, but most of it in planes and helicopters rather than balloons) or Wallington (a ballooning champion who crossed Australia in a gas balloon in 1993) have sufficient mastery of helium balloons to handle their quasi-spaceship.
"You don't mess around at 130,000 feet unless you really know gas balloons," he says. "If these people aren't thousands of hours in balloons, I don't want to talk to them. It's a very different type of flying."
Dunn says he's not trying to spoil the party; he wants to see Team Re/Max set the global record, he says, "and put an end to other guys doing it wrong.
"I hope their enthusiasm doesn't overtake good sense," he says. "It will save a lot of lives if they get it done right."
Yet even if the circumnavigation record eludes Team Re/Max, the mere attempt should provide the company with a windfall of publicity. Using the Re/Max satellite network, ham radios and even e-mail, the crew plans to broadcast their progress to the world, conduct scientific experiments and snap pictures for National Geographic. An online curriculum for K-12 students dealing with the science of the flight is being prepared in four languages, in the hopes of getting schoolchildren around the globe to follow the journey in the classroom.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for Re/Max to position itself not only with families but their children," says company president Jesperson. "Kids remember things like that. Our salespeople are really getting on the bandwagon and wanting to schedule our hot-air balloons at the schools."
Martin says he thinks the teams that come in second in the race to circle the globe will simply fade into obscurity, like those pilots who were trying to beat Lindbergh across the Atlantic. But times have changed; these days every balloon team has its own Web site, and even the chronicles of the failed missions are widely disseminated. Barring a singular tragedy in flight, Tom Hamilton of Balloon Life doesn't see how Liniger can lose.
"When you take a look at all the press exposure Virgin [Records] got, even out of a failed attempt--Liniger is no different," Hamilton says. "He's bought a seat in this balloon. There's a certain amount of risk, sure; you can lose your life in this deal. But he's made an evaluation that the risk is worth the reward. Even if he isn't the first around, he's going to wind up with a lot of exposure for his company, probably in multiples of the money he's actually spending on the project."
Dave Liniger says he almost never took a vacation until after Gail was injured in the seaplane crash fifteen years ago, a crash in which the pilot was killed. Over the next year, he stayed with her at various rehabilitation hospitals and was almost never in the office. Re/Max International got along fine without him, he adds, and could do so again if, say, he went into the heavens in a balloon and never came back.
"There's twenty people who can run this company as good as I can," he says. "There are several who can probably run it better. I'm just not willing to step aside yet."
Gail Liniger says the seaplane experience taught them both that they weren't indispensable. "After my accident, that was pointed out very clearly to us," she says. "We learned the true value of delegation and the assets we have in the company."
Both of them say they've never spent much time having second thoughts about their love of adventure. Not after Gail's accident. Not after Dave blew a tire in a NASCAR race in Las Vegas, hit the wall doing 160--and walked away from it. Not when the opportunity to fly a balloon around the world came along, either. "That's just the way we are," Gail says.
Dave says he took a long look at the Team Re/Max project before committing his time and money. "I sat there and thought about the risk a lot," he says. "I thought, 'I'm still a young man, maybe I shouldn't try something this hard.' Then I started thinking, 'This is a piece of cake compared to driving my car.' Hell, you can walk across the street and get hit by a car."
Before his number comes up, Liniger wants to see the color of the sky at 130,000 feet. A voracious reader, he knows what test pilots such as Joe Kittinger have to say about it, but he wants to see it for himself.
"Being able to look up," he says, "and see that the sky above you is jet black, even in the middle of the day, and then look straight out and it's kind of turquoise, a color you've never seen before, and look down and see the curvature of the earth--that's as close as I'll get to being able to go into space."
That's twenty-odd miles closer than most people. Come New Year's Day, with good weather, a little planning and some luck, Dave Liniger expects that people in Rio de Janeiro or Antofagasta or Asunción will look into the starry night sky and see his big balloon crossing in front of the full moon.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.