GENEVA -- The balloonists who conquered the last great challenge of the air were greeted at their Swiss base Monday by adoring crowds ringing cowbells and the ground crew that guided their record-breaking, nonstop round-the-world trip.
Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and his British co-pilot, Brian Jones, descended from the Lear jet that brought them from Egypt for emotional reunions with family and friends to conclude the nearly 20-day journey.Jones embraced his wife, Joanna, who had stayed at the control center throughout the trip. Piccard, joined by his wife Michelle and three daughters, saw his father and his brother and sister for the first time since the adventure ended Sunday morning in the Egyptian desert.
The two adventurers were met in the rain by the Swiss sports minister and Geneva town representatives before setting off in an open Mercedes to greet crowds estimated at 2,500 at a news conference in an airport hangar.
Once there, they were congratulated by Richard Branson, the British tycoon who failed several times to be the first balloonist to circle the world. Branson embraced them and handed them two huge bottles of champagne.
The pair set down their Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon at 8 a.m. Sunday, but because of logistical foul-ups, Egyptian helicopters only retrieved them from the remote desert landing site about seven hours later.
Together, Piccard and Jones floated more than 26,000 miles around the earth for the record. They crossed the "finish line" over Mauritania on Saturday. Strong winds over Libya then carried them on to a landing in Egypt. Their final distance logged: 29,056 miles.
After a delay to quiet the crowds, who were ringing cowbells and chanting the pilots' names, Piccard said he hoped the flight would be a symbol of peace for the future.
"Below us it wasn't paradise, below us there were wars, suffering of all sorts, and we had to ask why we had the right to be so happy," said Piccard.
"The moments of glory we are living are only useful if we bring a message.
"We were able to live a moment of fabulous harmony in an absolutely miniscule space. There is plenty of room on this earth to realize a more harmonious destiny," added Piccard.
Jones said he and Piccard had been aware of an "invisible hand" that guided them. He said at one point when he was desperately working to calculate whether there was enough fuel left to complete the journey, he saw the balloon's speed suddenly pick up.
"That was when we knew we would do it," he said.
Speaking before their departure from Cairo, Piccard said the two men had got on extremely well during the journey.