AMERICAN begins solo round-the-world balloon bid, taking off from Australian Outback

Sunday, August 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORTHAM, Australia (AP) _ American adventurer Steve Fossett took off at dawn Sunday on his fifth attempt to fly solo around the world in a balloon, the rays of the rising sun reflecting off the helium-filled ``Solo Spirit.''

The silver-colored balloon slowly rose from the ground, and with it the 57-year-old Chicago millionaire. Before liftoff, Fossett looked calm and said he was confident, despite weeks of delays and setbacks. Winds blowing in the wrong direction Saturday had delayed the launch for several hours.

``After all this waiting, I'm really anxious to fly,'' he said minutes before taking off.

Using a patched-up balloon that tore open on takeoff the last time he tried to set off, Fossett plans to cruise eastward, powered by high-altitude winds. If successful, the trip around the world should take about 15 days.

It will be his sixth attempt to circle the globe via balloon, including the failed bid he made in 1998 with British tycoon Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand of Sweden.

At Fossett's mission control at St. Louis' Washington University, word of the launch drew cheers, then applause.

``He's off. Liftoff,'' said Judith Jasper Leicht, a spokeswoman for the Solo Spirit team.

The balloon's initial ascent was slow with the ground crew anxiously watching for any signs of problems, but everything appeared to go well.

``It's going pretty smooth,'' crew chief Tim Cole said after the launch.

Inflation of the balloon started late Saturday night and continued into Sunday morning despite light winds that Fossett feared could topple the craft.

``It is a big risk,'' he told reporters and about 200 spectators huddled in the cold night air at an airfield in the small town of Northam, in the Outback 60 miles east of Western Australia state capital Perth.

Earlier, Fossett said the inflation was the most critical stage of his flight.

``There is so much that can go wrong,'' Fossett said. ``We can have a bad wind during the inflation, rip the envelope. We could make a mistake during the inflation process.''

Once airborne, Fossett would discover if all his preparation had paid off.

``In the first night I will have to find out whether the equipment is working,'' he said. ``That's when I'll find out whether there are any leaks in the balloon, whether there's failures in the communication equipment and whether the all important cabin heaters work, so I have good reason to be nervous about the first night of flight.''

Cole said the team and Fossett had been keen to make another launch after the disappointment of June 17, when a freak gust of wind blew over gas tanks attached to the balloon's capsule and ripped the envelope.

When fully inflated, the balloon towers 140 feet high and is 60 feet wide _ making it vulnerable to winds at launch.

Fossett will spend most of his time flying at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet in a cramped canary-yellow capsule that will float and emit signals for rescuers if he is forced to ditch in the ocean. Jet stream winds will propel the balloon at speeds up to 130 mph.

The cabin is heated, and Fossett will eat military-style food rations which heat themselves chemically.

He also has on board a four-man life raft, parachute and satellite navigation and communication equipment that will allow his control team in St. Louis to keep track of him and keep in touch via telephone and e-mail.

Only one two-man team has ever flown a balloon around the world _ 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. Nobody has done it alone.