BALLOONIST Steve Fossett, facing more bad weather, abandons global quest and lands in Brazil

Friday, August 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGE, Brazil (AP) _ Roughed up by bad weather and facing more, balloonist Steve Fossett abandoned his latest effort to float around the globe and landed Friday in a cattle ranch in southern Brazil _ just a day after reaching the halfway point in his trip.

Even so, the 57-year-old Chicago businessman did manage to set a couple of records. He traveled 12,258 miles, making the balloon flight the second longest ever, the longest solo flight and the longest in an unpressurized gondola.

The balloon went down in Espantoso, about 50 miles from Bage, a city in Brazil's southern pampas near the border with Uruguay and about 900 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro, Police Sgt. Carlos Duarte Vieira said.

Later, in a teleconference, Fossett said he was exhausted from little sleep and that he quit after a rough bout of battling thunderstorms as he crossed the Andes and sailed into Brazil.

``We thought it was just going to be some isolated thunderstorms and it turned out to be a minefield of thunderstorms and I thought my life was at risk all day long,'' he said.

He said he also had technical problems in landing.

``One key element of the balloon system didn't work and that's the red line to deflate the balloon. I couldn't break open the panel of the red line, so I was just dragging. I dragged for about a mile, bouncing along.''

Finally, he said, he used cable cutters to get the job done: ``Then the balloon dragged along for another mile and caught on a line of trees.''

Even so, he said, ``I feel pretty good right now.''

Earlier, reporters flying over the landing site in a jet saw the silver balloon half-deflated after apparently hitting a row of trees. A half dozen people surrounded the aircraft. It was raining overnight and when the journalists flew over the site.

Fossett launched his balloon Aug. 4 from Australia in his fifth bid to become the first solo balloonist to circle the Earth. The balloon is 140 feet tall and 60 feet wide. It contains 550,000 cubic feet of helium plus 100,000 cubic feet of hot air.

The abandonment of the quest came just a day after Fossett crossed the towering Andes mountains, enduring strong winds that bounced his Solo Spirit and had him donning a parachute as he passed the halfway mark of his trip.

``It comes to a point when even by round-the-world balloonists' standards the risks just became too high,'' Mission Control Director Joe Ritchie said at Washington University in St. Louis.

``My initial reaction was that this is the greatest disappointment of my life,'' Fossett said. ``It's a huge disappointment. But then, I suppose I've had many disappointments, so it doesn't loom quite as heavy on me anymore.''