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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast