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Leak keeps balloon at snail's pace

The Breitling Orbiter 2
The Swiss balloon begins its journey  

Around-the-world flight nears Corsica

January 29, 1998
Web posted at: 7:21 p.m. EDT (1921 GMT)

GENEVA (CNN) -- A European crew trying to become the first to circumnavigate the globe nonstop in a balloon grappled with a leaky crew capsule Thursday, a problem that has slowed the journey to a snail's pace.

An oxygen leak in the rear hatch of the Breitling Orbiter 2's pressurized capsule has forced the crew into lower altitudes, where the winds aren't as strong.

The leak was repaired from the inside. But a crew member, most likely Briton Andy Elson, will climb outside the capsule Thursday night or Friday morning to check the repairs so the capsule can be repressurized.

Brietling Orbiter 2
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Officials at the control center for the balloon flight in Geneva said Elson, an experienced mountain climber, would be fastened to a rope harness during the maneuver. The task was described as difficult but not necessarily dangerous.

The balloon, which also carries Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer Bertrand Piccard and Belgian pilot Wim Verstraeten, was over the western Mediterranean Sea, headed toward the island of Corsica. It was expected to fly over Corsica Friday morning, then head toward Greece and Israel before flying over Asia.

But the balloon's progress has been slow. In the early hours of the flight, which began in the Swiss Alps Wednesday morning, the balloon was traveling just 10 mph (16 km/hr). On Thursday, it picked up a little speed, reaching 25 mph (40 km/hr).

Because of the loss of pressure, the crew had to keep the craft at lower-than-expected altitudes, at or below 9,900 feet (3,000 meters). Temperatures inside were well below freezing.

The crew of the Brietling Orbiter 2  

During a telephone conversation with flight director Alan Noble, Piccard said that he and Elson had slept only a few hours during the night -- but that Verstraeten slept for 11 hours.

Bertrand said that, despite the early problems, morale was excellent.

If the capsule can be pressurized, the balloon is designed to achieve altitudes of 5.5 miles to 8.5 miles (8.8 km to 13.6 km). At that height, the balloon could tap into the strong winds of the jet stream, where it could be propelled along at speeds of 125 to 250 mph (200 to 400 km/hr.)

Due to the slow winds, the balloon drifted slightly off course. Instead of going straight across the Alps and into Italy after takeoff, it instead drifted southwest over France, going out to sea near Toulon.

"The weaker the winds are, the harder it is to know where the balloon is going," said Pierre Eckhart, a Geneva meteorologist helping with the balloon flight.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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