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Balloonist over halfway around the world

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- Millionaire balloonist Steve Fossett hit turbulence over the Andes Mountains that forced him to put on his parachute, but he maneuvered through it and passed the halfway point Thursday in his bid to become the first person to make a solo balloon flight around the world.

As of 3 p.m. EDT, Fossett was over Argentina moving toward a band of thunderstorms and the Atlantic Ocean. He is expected to reach the Atlantic around 8 a.m. EDT Friday, according to his mission control center at Washington University in St. Louis.

"He is approaching a broad area of thunderstorm activity, from which he will emerge in 14 to 18 hours," his mission control said in a statement.

Fossett is traveling at 34 mph at an altitude of 20,000 feet.

In focus: Joe Ritchie: Mission control for Fossett's flight  
Map: Steve Fossett's solo balloon flight  

Earlier in the day, the turbulence, known as "mountain waves," tossed Fossett's balloon, Solo Spirit, up and down while he was flying over the Andes, his mission control said. The balloon can rupture during such updrafts.

"So far, I've been able to control descents and climbs to 500 feet per minute," Fossett wrote in an e-mail to his colleagues. "Autopilot cannot keep up. Parachute is on in case of envelope rupture."

About 30 minutes later, he e-mailed back saying he had emerged safely from the rough skies. He then descended to conserve oxygen.

Fossett's balloon reached the midway point just after 11 a.m. EDT northwest of Monte Quemado, Argentina, more than 12,500 miles from his Australian starting point, his mission control said.

On Wednesday, Fossett broke the record for the longest solo balloon flight, according to mission control. The old record was held by Kevin Uliassi, who stayed aloft for 10 days, 3 hours and 28 minutes in March 2000. Fossett's flight is also the longest ever undertaken in an unpressurized gondola, mission control's Web site said.

Flight coordinator Kevin Stass said mission control and Fossett were "not considering anything else" other than completing the round-the-world flight, despite concerns over the balloon capsule's oxygen supply.

The early part of the trip took longer than expected, Stass said, depleting the supply.

"We've got limited oxygen supply, so we're going to have to play around with lower altitudes," he said. "It gives us less room for maneuver. Obviously, if he hasn't got oxygen, we can't go above 19,000 or 20,000 feet."

In March 1999, Swiss adventurer Dr. Bertrand Piccard and his British co-pilot Brian Jones took 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes to become the first balloonists to fly around the world nonstop. It was the longest flight ever, both in duration and distance.

• Fossett's Mission Control Center

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