Steve Fossett completes first around-the-world solo balloon quest

Wednesday, July 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KALGOORLIE, Australia (AP) _ After becoming the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon, American adventurer Steve Fossett faces a new challenge _ landing safely somewhere in Australia.

The 58-year-old Chicago millionaire sailed into the record books Tuesday night Australian time as he crossed east of 117 degrees longitude at 27,000 feet to complete the circumnavigation in a few hours under two weeks.

Now he has to land his towering balloon, the Spirit of Freedom.

Easier said than done. After crossing over the south Australian coast Wednesday afternoon, Fossett was met by gusty winds and his support crew decided to have him fly through the night in search of better weather.

Fossett was aiming to drift slowly toward Birdsville, a settlement of about 100 people on the border of South Australia and Queensland states, in central Australia. He was hoping to land near there at first light on Thursday _ Wednesday night in the United States. He had been expected to land about 6 p.m. local time on Wednesday.

In anticipation of landing, Fossett has leaked off fuel to lighten the load and make the balloon's eventual landing less jarring, said Barry Tobias, project leader head of Fossett's mission control at Washington University in St. Louis.

``Everything's going quite smoothly,'' Tobias said.

Generally, ``balloon landings are messy,'' said Joe Ritchie, head of mission control in St. Louis. ``Unless you have no wind, you're going to get dragged.''

As soon as his cramped capsule touches the ground, Fossett will release a panel to let helium and hot air escape from the balloon _ if all goes well.

``You try to pull the rip panel and let the helium out as soon as you touch down,'' Ritchie said. ``Sometimes that rip panel works, sometimes it doesn't. So, with this big a balloon, they (landings) are messy things. They're not really dangerous, but they're not always pretty.''

A sense of relief followed by euphoria washed over Fossett's mission control team as he crossed the line to break one of aviation's most elusive records. It was his sixth attempt.

``It's enormous relief and satisfaction, because I have put everything into this _ all of my efforts and my skill,'' Fossett said by satellite phone from his capsule. ``I have taken the risks associated with it over this long period of time and finally after six flights I have succeeded and it is a very satisfying experience.''

There was scarcely a reaction from support staff in St. Louis as Ritchie announced: ``Steve has crossed the finishing line.'' But minutes later, when a fax rolled into mission control confirming Fossett had broken the record, staff applauded and hugged.

Fossett has spent nearly two weeks living on military-like rations, breathing from oxygen cylinders and using a bucket as a toilet.

British tycoon Richard Branson _ who also has tried and failed to do what Fossett achieved _ paid tribute to the adventurer.

``What Steve has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. He has tried time and time again and never given up despite coming close to death on a number of occasions,'' Branson said in a statement, saying Fossett's achievement was greater than that of Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Fossett was already planning his next adventure _ flying a glider up to the stratosphere above 60,000 feet from southern New Zealand. He could launch that attempt later this month.

``I'm going to talk to him about this next thing he is doing, because it scares me, frankly,'' Ritchie said.

Learning from previous failures, this time around Fossett had plenty of fuel, no rogue nations to avoid and enough spare oxygen. The meticulous preparation, combined with helpful weather made the flight almost uneventful.

``The best flight is not the most exciting flight. This flight has been boring,'' Ritchie said.

The voyage he began June 18 in western Australia took him exactly 13 days, 12 hours, 16 minutes and 13 seconds.

What is left of Fossett's capsule after the landing will wind up in the Smithsonian Museum, according to his mission controllers.

About an hour after the balloon crossed the finish line, Fossett's team in St. Louis received a congratulatory call from Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard, who teamed with Englishman Brian Jones to make the round-the-world voyage in March 1999 through the Northern Hemisphere.

Fossett was able to sleep only about four hours a day during this trip, usually 45 minutes at a time. He had to climb outside the capsule, into freezing temperatures, to change fuel tanks or repair burners.

Besides a couple of turbulent patches, his flight was largely problem-free. At times, high-altitude winds powered Fossett's balloon along at a race-car-like speed of 200 mph.

Fossett flew over the Southern Hemisphere, as he did in 1998 and last year. That route posed fewer challenges from wary governments, since he was flying over only a handful of countries.

His previous attempts have been more eventful if less successful than the latest.

In 1998 an attempt from Argentina ended with his balloon's harrowing 29,000-foot plunge into the Coral Sea.

Last August, Fossett set a solo balloonist duration record, flying for 12 days, 12 hours and 57 minutes before going down on a cattle ranch in Brazil.

Fossett holds world records in ballooning, sailing and flying airplanes. He also swam the English Channel in 1985, placed 47th in the Iditarod dog sled race in 1992 and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996.