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Rip forces Uliassi to abort balloon flight

launch January 1, 1998
Web posted at: 12:54 a.m. EST (0554 GMT)

LOVES PARK, Illinois (CNN) -- The pursuit of one of aviation's last frontiers -- flying a hot-air balloon around the world nonstop -- was a head-to-head race for only a few hours.

Kevin Uliassi, 34, sailed into the winter sky at about 8:45 p.m. Wednesday in the J. Renee, a balloon named for his wife, who gave him a huckleberry pie, a kiss and a hug before the launch.

A few hours earlier and a couple hundred miles to the south, millionaire balloonist Steve Fossett launched his fourth attempt to circle the globe from St. Louis' Busch Stadium.

But a few hours after Uliassi took off, a spokesman for the J. Renee crew said a tear in the hot-air balloon would force Uliassi to abort his flight within 24 hours.

A L S O :

Fossett launches 3rd try at round-the-world balloon flight

Like Fossett and a few others, Uliassi had wanted to become the first person to fly non-stop around the world in a hot-air balloon.

"See you in 10 days," Uliassi said as he climbed into the balloon's capsule.

His huge, white balloon floated into a night sky criss-crossed by searchlights as a crowd of about 300 cheered. Uliassi's balloon had been expected to fly at 29,000 feet in wind speeds of 250 mph.

It was Uliassi's first attempt at traveling non-stop around the globe by balloon.

vxtreme CNN's Jeff Flock covers the launch

"I think it's really interesting we're in the air at the same time, but I wouldn't characterize it as a race," Uliassi said before his launch, adding that his a Fossett's balloons were launched from different places.

There are three other teams who hope to circumvent the globe: Dick Rutan, who helped fly the experimental lightweight plane Voyager around the world nonstop 11 years ago, and co-pilot David Melton want to launch Monday from New Mexico; British tycoon Richard Branson may try again this week; and Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard is preparing for another attempt.

The timing of the launches is no coincidence. Fossett spokeswoman Sue Killenberg said jetstream conditions for long-range flying are best in December and January.

Uliassi and wife
J. Renee and Kevin Uliassi sit high atop the gondola before the launch  

Enlisting the help of volunteers, Uliassi was trying to reach his dream on a shoestring. He amassed $300,000 from various sources, including corporate sponsors, his bank account and even a loan with a balloon payment. He took a leave of absence from his job as an architect to concentrate on his goal.

Uliassi saved $40,000 by redesigning the balloon's capsule, and $5,000 by rigging his own batteries.

He said he wanted to "prove this can be done in a pretty low-tech way." He named his balloon for his wife because "she's been working all this time to support us. And it's a struggle. We've been getting by on very little."

Just after the launch, his wife said, "It was a big adrenaline rush. This is great. I don't like being away from him, but this is exciting."

Although Uliassi's longest balloon trip has been just over 100 miles, he hadn't considered himself a long shot in the effort to become the first around the world in a balloon.

"I look forward to it as an adventure," he told CNN earlier. "I know I may be uncomfortable. I may be cold, I may not be as well fed as I am here on the ground. But I'm really looking forward to the flight. I enjoy every balloon flight I've ever had, even the tough ones."


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