MILLIONAIRE balloonist leaves Australia behind for flight over Pacific Ocean

Tuesday, August 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) _ American balloonist Steve Fossett left Australia behind Tuesday and began the long and lonely flight over the Pacific Ocean, worried that he might not have enough oxygen to complete his bid to circle the world.

Fossett crossed Australia's east coast at Port Macquarie, midway between Sydney and Brisbane, around 12:30 p.m. local time. His balloon, Solo Spirit, was traveling at 53 mph at an altitude of 22,000 feet.

Fossett, 57, is a Chicago investment tycoon who is making his fifth attempt to circle the globe alone in a balloon.

``I think if I succeed it will be seen as the most difficult flight that's ever been done, and a very important one,'' Fossett said Tuesday. ``It's a major undertaking ... with many obstacles in front of me and if I pull it off I'll be very proud of it.''

Fossett was forced Monday to dump one full and one empty propane tank after his balloon began veering too far to the south. The action sent his balloon climbing higher and corrected its course to the east.

The adventurer now faces an even more critical test _ between five and seven days over the remote south Pacific. If the balloon goes down, the nearest rescuers could be hundreds of miles and several hours away, even by plane.

Fossett's cramped capsule will float if he is forced to ditch at sea, and a radio will automatically broadcast a locator signal for rescuers.

If successful, his trip around the world should take 14 to 20 days.