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U.S. balloonists to launch early Friday


Freak accident delays Swiss team

In this story: January 8, 1998
Web posted at: 10:01 p.m. EST (0301 GMT)

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- U.S. adventurers Dick Rutan and Dave Melton expect to launch their 170-foot hot-air balloon Friday in an attempt to circle the globe without stopping. But a freak accident will delay the launch of yet another balloon in Switzerland.

Rutan and Melton had initially planned to take off from Albuquerque Tuesday morning, but they suspended the launch for up to two weeks because they believed poor wind conditions made the trip impossible.

However, team spokesman Patrick Barry said they had been too conservative in suspending the flight and would try to launch early Friday morning.

"We reassessed the weather and decided that the conditions in the jet stream are good and suit a world flight," Barry said.

He added that the delay may have worked in the team's favor because everyone had been exhausted by the rush to get the equipment ready on time.

"It was conservative, but frankly I think we also needed to rest," he said. "The crew was exhausted. Dick and Dave were exhausted, and they were on the verge of taking off with the paint barely dry on the capsule."

Barry said the crew has been resting and that Rutan and Melton had the opportunity to repack the pressured capsule they will live in for what they expect will be a two-week journey.

Cruising above the clouds


Rutan and Melton will pilot the 170-foot-high, Mylar-covered "Global Hilton," which is designed to cruise above the clouds at between 32,000 feet and 36,000 feet.

Flying at that height allows the team to avoid bad weather and pick up powerful winter jet streams that can push them along at up to 200 mph.

They will be sealed inside a pressurized, spherical, 8-foot-diameter capsule.

Theirs will be the third attempt in the past two weeks to circumnavigate the globe nonstop, a feat that has never been accomplished.

The Anheuser-Busch brewery of St. Louis is offering $500,000 to the first team to do so, and another $500,000 to the charity of the winner's choice. The winner must complete the flight by December 31, 1999.

Swiss equipment damaged

Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard, a 39-year-old psychiatrist and father of three, also planned to launch a bid for the record Friday from the Alpine ballooning center of Chateau d'Oex, near the Swiss resort of Gstaad. He was to be accompanied by Wim Verstraeten, a Belgian pilot, and Andrew Elson, a British engineer.

But three of the four cables that held their orange, blue and silver capsule snapped as it was being lowered by a crane from a trailer, and the 12,000-pound capsule fell back to the trailer with a loud bang.

The balloonists said one of the lifting bolts fastening the capsule to the frame of the balloon broke while the capsule was being lifted. The fall damaged the burners and the rigging.

'It's a living nightmare'

"It's a living nightmare," Piccard told a news conference. "We're very sad. Everything seemed so perfect this time."

Piccard tried to be optimistic but said he was especially disappointed because the weather was ideal.

"We've lost a magnificent weather opening," Piccard said. "I hope the dream will come true in the next weeks."

Piccard said the capsule was expected to be repaired by Wednesday, but the weather forecast is for bad weather for the next six to eight days. The team now thinks that the earliest it can hope to take off will be January 16, assuming the capsule is ready.

Piccard's attempt last year with Verstraeten was foiled when a fuel leak forced them down into the Mediterranean Sea off France.

Two other balloonists, Steve Fossett and Kevin Uliassi of the United States, took off on separate missions last week, but they, too, failed.

Branson also to make an attempt

Uliassi was forced to make an emergency landing just three hours after taking off.

Fossett crossed the Atlantic in record time but was forced by mechanical problems and weak winds to abandon his third round-the-world effort Monday in southern Russia.

British businessman Richard Branson hopes to launch his latest effort from Morocco later this month. His last attempt ended in disaster in December when his balloon was ripped from its moorings by strong winds and carried unpiloted into Algeria.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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