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'Global Hilton' hits ground after balloonists bail out

Both men jump from aircraft; 1 hurt
Helium leak aborts latest global challenge

January 9, 1998
Web posted at: 2:38 p.m. EST (1938 GMT)

In this story:

Melton was injured while landing   

VAUGHN, New Mexico (CNN) -- Record-seekers Dick Rutan and Dave Melton parachuted out of their balloon in eastern New Mexico, just hours after lifting off on Friday, when a helium leak forced them to give up an attempt to make a nonstop voyage around the world.

Both men "landed hard," said "Global Hilton" spokesman Pat Barry.

He said Melton suffered a hip and leg injury on landing and was being airlifted by helicopter to Albuquerque for treatment. "Dave had the misfortune of hitting a cattle fence," Barry said. "Dave is alert and other than his injuries, he appears to be fine." (icon 221K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Rutan, who landed near a cactus, had cuts on his nose -- apparently from cactus needles -- and was seen walking on the ground after landing. Melton landed nearby.

The jump was from a height of 11,000 to 15,000 feet, various reports said.


Balloon hit ground, rose up again

The 170-foot (52-meter) hot air and helium balloon eventually drifted to the ground but hit with enough force to knock loose some of the equipment on board. That lightened the aircraft enough so that it rose up again and continued on an eastward drift.

"When it touched down, it probably shook off some of the propane tanks. It got very light, very quickly and floated back up to 30,000 feet," Barry said. "Air traffic control is aware of its position," he said. (icon 391K/30 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Barry said the balloon was being carried by jet stream winds at a speed of 87 mph. The ground crew was tracking its position, he said.

It was hoped that as night fell and temperatures cooled the balloon would descend once again, so that it could be retrieved either on Friday night or Saturday morning.


"The helium will contract... and that's when the balloon will descend," Barry said. "That's our hope." (icon 1.6MB/18 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Barry could not predict where the balloon would return to Earth but he minimized the possibility that it would cause damage or injuries on the ground, noting that the aircraft was floating over sparsely populated land. 

Bail out explained

Using orange parachutes, Rutan and Melton landed southeast of Vaughn, a town about 75 miles southeast of its launch point. The balloon took off from Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque at 6:20 a.m. MST (8:20 a.m. EST) and rose into the pre-dawn darkness and began floating eastward.

The ground crew said Rutan and Melton decided to jump from the balloon's 8-foot (2.4-meter) spherical capsule because it was safer than trying to land with potentially explosive propane gas on board.

Rutan and Melton bail out of balloon
video icon 2.8MB/19 sec./320x240
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QuickTime movie

Another option -- releasing the gas in the tanks and then trying to land -- also was considered unsafe.

The helium leak that led to the parachute jump was reported a little over an hour after liftoff when the balloon was 40 miles east of the launch site. At that point, the balloonists had risen to about 30,000 feet (9,140 meters).

The leak was caused by a rip in the helium-filled upper portion of the balloon, ground crew members said. There was no immediate word on what caused the tear.

The flight plan for Rutan and Melton called for the balloon to rise 32,000 feet into the jet stream and ride 200-mph air currents around the world in about 14 days.

Latest in a series of failures

Two other balloon teams also have failed in recent weeks to set the record.

The helium leak in the Global Hilton was similar to what led balloonist Kevin Uliassi to scrub his round-the-world attempt on New Year's Eve. He landed in Indiana after leaving a few hours earlier from Loves Park, Illinois.

Balloonist Steve Fossett, who lifted off from St. Louis a few hours earlier than Uliassi, was forced to land on Monday in southern Russia because of technical problems, low winds and a fuel shortage.

Three European balloonists plan to launch soon from Switzerland, despite a delay caused by a mooring accident on Thursday.

Anheuser-Busch, a U.S.-based beer manufacturer, is offering $500,000 to the first person or team to circle the globe in a balloon, along with $500,000 to the charity of the winner's choice. The deadline is December 31, 1999.

Correspondent Jim Hill contributed to this report.

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