After the 1985 National Geographic film Flight of the Windhorse – about our first attempt to fly balloons over Everest – was released on the big screen, my phone rang hot for months with some very unusual requests, and one from Manuel Navarro: ‘I am a hang-glider pilot from Brazil, and I want to use your balloon to go to 30,000 feet for a world record….’ 

The project was feasible, but the consequences of something going wrong could be very nasty. ‘Sorry, Manuel. No-can-do.’ I said, giving him short-shift, and went back to work. Three minutes later, Manuel was asking again. 

‘It’s possible but dangerous,’ I said. ‘I’ll need to invent an oxygen system that keeps you alive above 15,000 feet. I’ll need to sort out a foolproof communications system. I’ll need Air Traffic Control to let me mix it with the big jets at 30,000 feet. I’ll need to create a safe way to launch the balloon with you suspended underneath, and I’ll need to keep you warm at an air temperature of around minus fifty degrees Celsius. There are lots of things that can go wrong. And I doubt that you could afford it,’ I said, inventing a huge amount of money that he would have to pay in advance, and enough to make him go away.

‘Money is no problem. I’ll be in Sydney tomorrow. We will do this world record together. Okay?’ 

I obviously hadn’t made the amount high enough, and even though he hadn’t blinked at the price, I still hadn’t agreed. 

I called Steve Moyes, a world champion pilot who had given me a couple of hang-gliding lessons. Steve had looked after my Adventure Travel company’s first Himalayan hang gliding expedition to the Annapurna region in Nepal, and I had every confidence in his judgement. 

‘He’s a good competition pilot. I think he’s a Brazilian champion. He knows his stuff,’ said Moyes. 

Dick Smith, the Australian businessman who had launched Australian Geographic, got wind of the upcoming attempt and called me to ask if he could drive retrieve and do a story for his magazine. Channel Nine also wanted to be part of the act, and suddenly the enterprise was bigger than Ben-Hur.

We launched from Cowra, in western NSW, with Navarro suspended in his hang-glider, while cocooned in an insulated bag that could be opened in seconds for a quick getaway. During the climb to 30,000 feet, his oxygen was supplied from cylinders in the basket, but for the trip down, he needed to switch over to a fifteen-minute personal supply from a small bottle strapped to his chest. The Channel Nine cameraman and reporter on board were very brave, but they didn’t fully understand the danger. However, they both signed a release of liability. 

We reached the record-breaking altitude after about ninety minutes. My passengers were struggling in what Himalayan climbers call the death zone. Although we were all on bottled oxygen, the lack of atmospheric pressure at 30,000 feet–about 1,000 feet higher than Mt Everest–in an open wicker basket wasn’t sufficient to support life for any extended period. I requested immediate clearance from ATC to drop Navarro. ATC put me on hold. The minutes ticked by and travelling at 70 knots, at 30,000 feet, so did the miles. ATC made triply sure that there were no aircraft that Navarro, or the balloon, could impact while we descended. I thought there was about the same chance of being hit by a meteor, but I had no choice. I had to wait. After another ten minutes, I made a second request and was put on hold. The delay impacted safety significantly. Just as I was about to release Navarro, without approval, I received the go-ahead. 

Navarro was suspended horizontally under the basket. When I pulled the quick release, his hang-glider rotated through a frightening 110 degrees and partially inverted. He righted himself and plummeted out of view. My two passengers, who had never been in anything like this situation, were becoming seriously hypoxic. I vented hot air, and we went into free fall. At one point, the VSI indicated 4,300 ft/minute down. It took about ten minutes to reach the oxygen-safe altitude of 12,000 feet, but I continued descending as rapidly as possible, overtaking Navarro. I levelled out at a hundred feet above the ground, travelling at fifty kilometres an hour. 

I had my two passengers brace for a fast landing. A freshly mowed, kilometre-wide paddock presented itself, and I eased the basket onto the ground with barely a bump. At touch-down, I had two choices: I could either rip the Velcro out at the top of the balloon for instant deflation, which was a pain in the arse to reinstall for the next flight, or I could use the slow-release parachute vent, which was the lazy option, but the one I chose, making a big mistake.

The moment we touched down, the balloon became a sail, the basket tilted at an angle, and we dragged along the ground at wind speed. I have experienced plenty of fast landings and didn’t mind a long drag and a final layover in a smooth paddock. With ten passengers on board, a 200,000 cubic foot balloon would have slowed quickly and finished on its side with the passengers lying on their backrests, which is all perfectly safe. However, with only two passengers on board, the basket kept sliding. Towards the end of the four hundred metre drag, we hit a small corrugation in the paddock. The forward momentum instantly transformed into a rotational moment, and the basket inverted, leaving us trapped inside. Navarro landed beside us and helped the local farmer right the basket. Fortuitously, there were no injuries, nor any equipment damage. It might have happened with the unusually light basket regardless, but it was a stupid, dangerous mistake.

Channel Nine had their film, Dick Smith had his Australian Geographic story, and Manuel Navarro had his world record. I had my landing lesson and made a very handsome profit, but the story doesn’t end there. Immediately after the flight, Navarro dropped entirely off the radar, which surprised me. I thought he would have kept in contact, however, seven years later I took a call from Navarro in our Melbourne office: Chrisss – I want to make a new world record in your hot air balloon,’ he said.

‘It’s great to hear from you after such a long time. Where are you, Manuel?’

‘I’m getting out of jail next week….’

Manuel had been smuggling cocaine into Australia, packed inside hang-glider frames, which explained a few things.