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Steve Fossett

U.S. Balloonist Sets Record in Circling
Tue Jul 2,11:14 AM ET

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - U.S. millionaire Steve Fossett became the first solo balloonist to circle the globe nonstop, sailing into the record books high above the clouds off Australia's southern coast on Tuesday.

"It's an enormous relief and satisfaction," the 58-year-old adventurer said from the balloon, his remarks piped back to a news conference at his U.S. control center in St. Louis, Missouri.

"It's been a long trip and I'm really glad to get across," he added.

Fossett, who had failed to make a circumnavigation in five previous and often danger-filled tries, snared one of manned flight's last earthly records at about 9:40 a.m. EDT on Tuesday. He crossed the finish line when he passed 117 degrees east longitude, the same line where he began his trip 13-1/2 days earlier from far western Australia.

When he achieved the record after sailing nearly 19,500 miles (31,380 km) he was under a canopy of stars, he reported, with clouds covering the ocean below.

His next challenge was to steer the balloon northeasterly for a landing in Australia, a final leg that may take several hours. A likely landing spot was on Australia's desolate outback Nullarbor Plain early on Wednesday Australian time.

On Monday, the Colorado-based former Chicago markets trader set a top speed of 186 mph over the Indian Ocean and had hoped to land back in western Australia, but the winds pushed him south.

The Nullarbor is a limestone plateau bordered by the Great Australian Bight to the south, with cliffs plunging into the shark-infested Southern Ocean, and its northern perimeter by the Great Victoria Desert of central outback Australia.

Australia's transnational highway which runs along the Nullarbor is one of the world's great long distance road trips, with endless bitumen disappearing into an outback heat haze and no water or petrol for hundreds of miles (kilometers).

When Fossett lands, his hi-tech balloon is expected to disintegrate, with only the gondola surviving the descent.

"The actual balloon does not normally survive the landing. The capsule will survive and is to be taken to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., to be hung next to Charles Lindbergh's 'Spirit of Saint Louis', which he flew across the Atlantic," said a mission control spokesman.

Fossett was lucky to live when he plummeted 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea off Australia's northeast during his fourth attempt in 1998.

Ground crew in Australia have a helicopter on standby to reach Fossett if he lands in a remote area.

Under the sport's international rules, a balloonist cannot fly around the poles -- the shortest distance around the world -- but also it is not necessary to fly around the equator, a distance of 25,000 miles.

"The flight has to cross all meridians and has to be of a length that as a minimum is equal to half the equator length," says the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Web site.

Fossett chose a southern hemisphere route to take advantage of prevailing easterly winds. His path after leaving Australia was virtually straight across the South Pacific, past the remote Easter Islands, and over the southern tip of South America.

But once he started to cross the Atlantic his flight path headed south, under South Africa and closer to the Antarctic, the shortest route around the world.

"It will take several weeks to validate officially any records set," spokesman Jean-Marc Badan of the Lausanne-based Federation Aeronautique Internationale known as FAI (the World Air Sports Federation) told Reuters.

During the years that Fossett tried to make the circuit, the honor of the first such trip ever went to Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard and English co-pilot Brian Jones in March 1999. Fossett continued to concentrate on the solo mark.

The preceding written information was taken from a Reuters article.
The original article appeared in Reuters on July 2, 2002.

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Updated: 12 March, 2004