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RIPPED balloon tatters tycoon's round-the-world flight hopes

KALGOORLIE, Australia (AP) _ U.S. adventurer Steve Fossett's dreams of becoming the first man to fly a balloon solo around the world lay in tatters Monday after his balloon was ripped open by a freak wind gust before it left the ground.

Fossett had hoped the ``Solo Spirit'' would carry him around the world and into aviation history.

Instead, the 17-storey balloon will be shipped to its makers in Britain for repair and tests. Dejected staff began inspecting it for damage Monday before packing it up.

Midway through the inflation late Sunday, an unexpected gust of wind dislodged two tether lines holding down the balloon and ripped two 10 foot gashes in the silver envelope.

Fossett, who had already endured four failed flights dating back to 1996, had not even climbed into the yellow cabin when his latest mission was aborted.

Shortly after the failed launch, Fossett was reluctant to commit himself to a fresh solo bid. ``It takes a good chunk of a person's life do to this,'' he told a news conference in St. Louis, Mo., by telephone.

The only people to have flown a balloon around the world are Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard and English balloon instructor Brian Jones who teamed up in March 1999 to steer the ``Breitling Orbiter'' balloon around the globe.

Hundreds of spectators, many clutching small balloons and eating hot dogs, had gathered outside the gates of the tiny airport in Kalgoorlie, western Australia, to watch the final preparations of Fossett's 140-foot-high, 60-foot-wide silver balloon.

Inflating the balloon with a mixture of hot air and helium takes hours and requires very light winds.

Bob Rice, the chief meteorologist at mission control at St. Louis' Washington University, said winds had been too strong for inflation all day Sunday. When they calmed at sunset, inflation began _ only to have a 12 mph wind gust blow the balloon over.

``It promptly went calm again, but who cares?'' Rice said.

Fossett, 57, had planned to spend about 15 days in the cramped capsule, breathing oxygen through a mask, eating military-style rations and sleeping no more than 45 minutes at a time for a total of four hours a day.

Jet stream winds had been predicted to propel the balloon eastward around the world at speeds up to 130 mph and altitudes reaching 30,000 feet.

Fossett, president of investments company Larkspur Securities, said he pumped about $750,000 of his own cash into the latest effort.
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