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Directing mission control, as Steve Fossett's flight ends

Joe Ritchie: 'Not an expert in anything'

Businessman and self-avowed generalist Joe Ritchie is mission control director for Steve Fossett's sixth Solo Spirit balloon flight.
Businessman and self-avowed generalist Joe Ritchie is mission control director for Steve Fossett's sixth -- and now concluded -- Solo Spirit balloon flight.  

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "I think he's down," says mission director Joe Ritchie. "Last we could hear, as [mission control] was talking him down, was a crunching noise you could hear and the antenna would normally break off and he lost contact so I assume he's on the ground."

And shortly after telling CNN this -- by around 9:14 a.m. EDT Friday -- Ritchie is starting to get ground confirmation from Brazil: Solo Spirit has landed.

Fossett made the decision to abort after flying into thunderstorms over Argentina. Facing three more days of bad weather conditions and nearing a long leg over the Atlantic Ocean, the balloonist chose to land.

And the mission control director for this latest of Fossett's around-the-world efforts is philosophical.

"As they say in mountaineering, the mountain will be there tomorrow. The main thing is to make sure the mountaineer is," said Ritchie. "You've got to look reality square in the face and do what you gotta do."

Just 24 hours earlier, Ritchie was elated to be reporting that Fossett had passed the halfway point in his easterly flight that began August 4 in Australia.

Will Fossett make a seventh attempt? "You're going to have to ask Steve about that," Ritchie says. "After the last one, I think he thought no way, but after the passage of time, I think he rethought things and decided to try it."

graphic Do you think of yourself in your career as a generalist -- as Joe Ritchie does -- or a specialist?

I'm a generalist and it's right for me.
I'm a generalist but would like to be a specialist.
I'm a specialist but would like to be a generalist.
I'm a specialist and it's right for me.
View Results

To hear Ritchie rattle off his status report -- serene, even amid disappointment -- you'd think the man had run the operation at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in Fossett's first five attempts to circumnavigate the world by balloon. In fact, Ritchie has been a participant in the past. He was recovery director for the January 1998 and summer 1998 flights and he flew the chase planes during Fossett's 1997 flight to India and 1996 transcontinental flight to New Brunswick.

But having finally arrived in the "driver's seat" of the Solo Spirit team, Ritchie is quick to declare what he says he sees as a key advantage in a multifaceted career: "I'm not an expert at anything. Kind of a generalist. He's not either," Ritchie says about Fossett. "This is a guy who does a huge variety of things. In none of them is he particularly the best. But in doing all of them, there's nobody like him."

Ritchie, now 54, has been crossing paths with Fossett for some 30 years, he says. They first were together in computer programming -- "when I was making $550 a month as a programming trainee" -- and later in computerized trading with the Chicago Board of Trade.

Steve Fossett's Solo Spirit cleared the halfway point in the current circumnavigation effort just after 11 a.m. EDT Thursday.
Steve Fossett's Solo Spirit cleared the halfway point in the current circumnavigation effort just after 11 a.m. EDT Thursday.  

"I started out driving a bus," Ritchie says, "then I was a policeman, then a computer programmer. His mother was a homemaker, his father a civil engineer and a minister. Home was Reedsport, Oregon, a small city "about at the middle" of the state's Pacific coastline. Today, he and his wife are raising 10 children in Illinois.

Ritchie moved to the Chicago area to attend Wheaton College. And when trading stocks with a computerized model left his eclectic spirit wanting more, he began a kind of international business journey that to this day continues to expand and is funded by a keen interest in raising people's self-esteem in all his ventures.

•   Russia. "I was kind of the guy who first got a lot of joint ventures going in Russia before the end of the Cold War. I started a business over there that grew into about 80 companies with more than 5,000 employees. It started out with computers but branched out into architecture, manufacturing, hotels, law. The biggest assets anywhere are the people you get."

•   Japan. "A couple of my friends who grew up over there are working with me. We're building businesses that are fundamentally Japanese but use American know-how. These are in the services -- housekeeping, service management. It's such a hierarchical society. You can take the people on the bottom and make them feel better about the work they do and help them be happier. That's the kind of value added that I think is a very satisfying way to earn a buck."

•   Afghanistan: "I lived in Kabul for four years while my father taught civil engineering. Now, I'm doing what you might call a labor-of-love project. You don't make money in Afghanistan today" under the strict fundamentalist-Islamic rule of the Taliban regime, "but you can do things with the handicrafts they make to help set up educational possibilities. A lot can be done to influence policy toward Afghanistan." In fact, Ritchie says, he'd like to see a return of the royal family to Afghanistan -- overturned in the mid 1970s -- as key to forming a democratic response to the Taliban government. "The Afghans crave this," he says.

Joe Ritchie
Joe Ritchie: "You can take people on the bottom and make them feel better about the work they do and make them feel happier."  

•   HOSTS: Help One Student to Succeed, a structured academic mentoring program with chapters in many parts of the country, has become a big part of Ritchie's suite of career activities. The program was formed in 1971 in Vancouver, Washington. "When HOSTS people go into a school," Ritchie says, "they say, 'Give us the bottom of the barrel.' They take kids who advance less than half a year (academically) every year. When they go on the program, they start advancing a year-and-a-half per year. Those kids start having the least discipline problems and the best attendant rates. And the adults get such a high from seeing what this program can do."

All those irons Ritchie normally has in the fire are cooling a bit as he directs mission control for Fossett. After letting out an impatient sigh, he quickly adds, "But hey, Steve's an old friend." And at least the director's position matches that wide-angle approach Ritchie likes to take to life and work.

"I think it works better to have a generalist in this position. You're dealing with so many specialities, as is. You've got balloonists, you've got weather guys, you've got technicians figuring out the burners and the propane -- I think it's important to have someone with that general overview."

And now that the mission is ending?

"I'll go back home before my wife and kids fire me."


• Wheaton College
• Solo Spirit -- mission control site

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