This Longhorn Has Sky-High Dreams of an Airship Race Around the World

Hartsell in the cockpit of a blimp at Livermore Municipal Airport in Livermore, California, July 2, 2022.

Imagine this: In the near future, across the world, blimps and dirigibles are serenely circumnavigating the earth—passing over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower at a stately 60 miles per hour. If it feels difficult to imagine, that’s because it is. It’s a scene that would be nearly impossible to create. But that hasn’t stopped Don Hartsell from dreaming.  

Hartsell, BBA ’75, has a fantastic plan that would amaze the world. His quixotic quest is straight from the pages of an adventure novel—a global airship race. The odds are against him and yet, for nearly two decades, he has been determined to make his vision come to life, planning a World Sky Race that will pit airships against each other in a round-the-world voyage. His ultimate goal? To bring hope to the world.  

“We call this—with great reason—a race for the planet, a race for humanity. The goal is literally to connect the world and connect us in peace,” says Hartsell, a Houston entrepreneur and founder of the World Air League. “Symbolism matters greatly to humanity. We’re going to give people around the world a reason to go outside and look up.”  

It’s a line that wouldn’t be out of place coming from Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. Hartsell’s modern effort, if it happens, would take at least 180 days including stops in 17 cities (or Summit Cities, as Hartsell calls them) and elsewhere for refueling. The airship with the fastest time would win a $5 million prize.  

Many industry experts think the race will never get off the ground. “Everyone who dreams of lighter-than-air travel would love to see something like this happen, of course, but there are very significant logistical challenges that would be extremely difficult, at best, to overcome,” says airship historian Dan Grossman, who runs the website and is the author of the book Airships: Designed for Greatness.  

Brian Hall, the co-founder of the defunct Airship Ventures, a California tourism company, warns that “the race has technical, logistical, financial, and insurance challenges. The circumnavigation of the globe on its own would be an extreme challenge. Any little piece of this is already challenging, but to do them all together multiplies the difficulty.”  

But Hartsell is undeterred. The 69-year-old Paradise, Texas, native recently told The Wall Street Journal that this quest will be “the largest man-made event seen by live spectators in the entire history of the human race.”  

Hartsell, a retired accountant, attorney, and inventor, has been dreaming about pulling off this lighter-than-air marathon since he was 23. That’s when he saw a Goodyear blimp float past the Statue of Liberty during the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. When his business career started winding down in 2006, he got serious about making the event happen. He scrubbed the race’s first start date in 2011 and did the same in 2014 due to lack of financial support.  

Today the globe-girdling extravaganza has $10 million in funding, a sum that includes Hartsell’s money and backing from sponsors, up from the $4 million he amassed more than a decade ago, and he’s intent on raising millions more. He declines to reveal who his financial supporters are, except to say they are in the gas industry. The race won’t be cheap. Summit cities must each put up funds to host airships and their teams. Those costs could run as high as $55 million, according to Hartsell.  

Today, as he did a decade ago, Hartsell has assembled an impressive advisory council. Ross Perot Jr. has given permission for his Alliance Airport in Fort Worth to be used as a training base. Prince Albert II of Monaco has told his government to support the race. Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of heavy metal band Iron Maiden, is licensed to fly 747s and wants to pilot one of the airships. Sian Proctor, the first African American woman to pilot a commercial spacecraft, hopes to serve as navigator for a team.  

“The idea of flying airships around the world to unite us to become more sustainable is a great cause,” Proctor says. “If I were an oddsmaker, I’d say the odds of Don pulling this off are 100 percent. The big thing is getting the word out and getting countries around the world to unite around this.”  

Hartsell is buying six airships for the race. He hopes to convince six companies possibly in six nations to each sponsor one. The cost? No more than $20 million for the naming rights to each vessel. No wonder that Hartsell met with heads of the Saudi Tourism Authority last November or that former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom Robert Jordan sits on Hartsell’s board. 

So far, two airship teams have signed on—one from South America (though Hartsell is mum on its identity, the Argentinian company Aerovehicles expressed interest in 2019) and Flying Whales, a startup French airship cargo company whose dirigible currently exists only as a digital rendering.  

There are fewer than 15 passenger-carrying airships in the world, according to Hall. All are engaged in commercial operations for their owners. They would have to put aside those profit-making ventures to participate. When The Wall Street Journal asked Goodyear in 2010 whether it would take part in the event, its spokesman said that doing so would pose “significant operational challenges.” Goodyear declined to comment for this article.  

Race advocates want the event to raise awareness of airships as a potential form of cargo transportation, given their environmentally friendly low-carbon footprint. That’s the goal of Hartsell supporter Trammell S. Crow, the founder of nonprofit environmental organization EarthX, and son of the late Texas real estate magnate of the same name.  

“Hartsell is diligent and tenacious,” says Crow, who looks forward to the day when cargo airships could land in the middle of the Congo without an airport. “He’s a real gentleman to have that type of tenacity without wearing people out.”  

As for the proposed race, Crow says, “The jury’s out. I’ve never read anything that denounces the economics of this. So, it seems like it’s one of those unicorns that would change the world.”  

Hartsell will always remember one summer day when he was 5 years old. He was helping his grandfather Dewey Hartsell in his Fort Worth garden where he grew watermelon, corn, and tomatoes to feed his family.  

“Dewey was a gentle, quiet man who didn’t say a whole lot,” Hartsell recalls. “He was towering above me. He’s got his straw cowboy hat on, and he looked down   at me and says, ‘Don, you’re from Texas.’  

“I looked up at him and said, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘You got to think big.’ And then after the longest pause, he says, ‘And you got to be big.’ I am here to make my grandfather proud.”  

Living up to his grandfather’s expectations launched Hartsell on an unconventional career path. He says he had a “rather odd” college experience racing through UT in six semesters, because he was paying his own way. Hartsell confesses that while his classmates met with Big Eight accounting firms, he never did a single job interview.  

Instead, adventure called. He wanted to work on cargo ships and see the world. But while getting his merchant marine credentials, a visit to New York City tempted him to tour America from inside boxcars, something Dewey had done decades earlier.  

“I didn’t know a damned thing about hopping freight trains,” Hartsell says. So, he went to Manhattan’s rail yards and spun a yarn, telling workers he was with an Austin newspaper. “Hey, I’m a reporter, and I’m doing a story on modern-day hobos. Would you mind answering a few questions?” he would ask. After taking out an official-looking notepad and learning everything he needed to know, he boarded a boxcar and spent two weeks riding through the Midwest and back to Texas.  

“I was by myself and in my mind listening to Pink Floyd. I had no radio, so I had to replay Pink Floyd in my memory,” he says.  

His wanderlust still unfulfilled, Hartsell became a CPA and worked for various employers, including the American Institute of CPAs. But working with numbers left him cold. “I have to say this about every accounting job I’ve ever had: for some reason, they all fired me. That’s a badge of honor,” he says.  

Then destiny struck. While studying law at the University of Houston, he worked as an accountant to put himself through school. One of his clients was a painting company that had a contract to apply a fresh coat to an above-ground gas storage tank. But rust caused by humidity was making the job hard.  

Hartsell heard that a Swedish inventor had created a new dehumidification system. The two men struck a deal, with Hartsell negotiating the global rights to market and manufacture a mobile dehumidifier. Their company, Solex Environmental Systems, soon found a niche—restoring library books.  

He became an architect of the largest successful restoration of books in history. More than a million volumes at the Los Angeles Public Library suffered water damage when firefighters tackled a 1986 fire. To salvage them, Solex froze them in ice to kill mold and mildew. It then turned the ice into steam bypassing the damaging liquid phase in a process known as subliming. Of the 1.2 million injured books, Solex’s restoration rate was 97 percent, according to Hartsell. R&D Magazine’s 100 Award honored the company in 1999 for devising one of that year’s 100 most innovative products.  

Hartsell later used ultraviolet radiation to destroy mold in Houston Baptist University’s collection of 500 rare American Bibles. For the Getty Conservation Institute, he created a humidified nitrogen environment to preserve mummies. Hired to purify the air in an historic Indianapolis building that had suffered fire damage, Hartsell’s wizardry came to the rescue. He guided a cryogenic cleaning device through its ducts by attaching it to a radio-guided miniature car he bought at RadioShack.  

While doing the Los Angeles library job, producers of a Charlton Heston movie approached him to ask if he could find a way to fog actors’ breaths, a visual that cameras back then had a hard time capturing. His solution? He put glycol into the air-conditioning system of the set to cause the temperature to plummet. To create the effect, he added moisture to the air and had actors guzzle hot coffee before delivering their lines.  

Thanks to these efforts, Hartsell won membership to the Explorers Club, an international professional society that promotes scientific exploration and whose members include Buzz Aldrin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Sir Edmund Hillary. To be admitted, one must push a boundary forward. “It could be a technological barrier or an exploration,” Hartsell explains. “It’s something that moves our civilization forward in a fashion that is replicable, documented, and useful.”                 

Amelia Earhart said, “Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done,” a quote Hartsell likes. He is unusually persuasive and has keen insights into how to get people to believe in his vision.  

 He calls his event “a race for humanity” because he knows the word “humanity” has a certain resonance in the context of airships. “We throw that word out there as that announcer did during the crash of the Hindenburg where he said, ‘Oh, the humanity.’” Hartsell says.  

“We use that word on purpose for a reason. You take people’s impressions, and you take what is molded around those impressions. It’s all about recognition of cultural icons. How this race evolves is taking advantage of those very things people have as a part of their appreciation of the subject matter.”  

These days Hartsell is busy running Zoom calls with his team, chasing deadlines, and, most of all, focusing on raising the millions needed for his hopeful start date.  

“We need the current reaffirmation letter from the Egyptian government that the Pyramids will be on the race route,” Hartsell insists over Zoom last summer before moving on to a discussion of a possible role for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “It would be very, very interesting to have UNESCO’s buy-in on this,” he says.  

He’s sending requests-for-proposals to the cities of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio so they can apply to be the Texas Summit City. “When we have this kind of narrative being beaten into the heads of all the Convention and Visitors Bureaus, people, we’re going to have some sparks come out of it,” he says.  

Hartsell lets slip that hotelier Bradley Hilton, the CEO of Hilton Business Ventures and Hilton Global Gateway, has invited his cousin to play piano at a race-related Explorers Club event. “We’re getting the Hilton family more and more,” Hartsell says.  

And there’s more tantalizing news. Hartsell tells his team another colleague broached the idea with Tom Cruise and will dine with him. Cruise, the man says, likes aviation projects, and when he heard about the airship race, he smiled.  

It’s hard to know if Hartsell’s vision will ever come to life. To witness his determination, it is easy to believe that the passion that drives his grand—and maybe impossible—dream will do one down-to-earth thing: inspire hope.  

CREDIT: Jason Henry


1 Comment

Post a Comment