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Balloon heads around world -- slowly

January 30, 1998
Web posted at: 3:44 p.m. EDT (1544 GMT)

GENEVA (CNN) -- Three European balloonists trying to circle the globe nonstop were approaching southern Italy Friday night, but winds were slow, and the crew had still not repaired the capsule's hatch, their flight director said.

In an interview with Reuters, Alan Noble said the Breitling Orbiter 2 was expected to be over the western Greek island of Corfu Saturday. Sunday, the huge silver craft should float over the volatile triangle where Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet.

Iraqi officials have not replied to a request from the team's flight control center for the combination hot air and helium balloon to fly over their territory should it be necessary.

"We hope to get all the traffic control clearance we need," Noble told Reuters.

"We've had a positive response from Iran, but nothing from Iraq. We didn't expect to fly anywhere near Iraq and we may not yet. It is not a comfortable area. But it is a possibility."

The trio, who left the Swiss village of Chateau d'Oex on Wednesday aboard their six-ton craft, are Swiss aeronaut and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, Belgian pilot and navigator Wim Verstraeten and British engineer Andrew Elson.

Thursday, Elson thought he had repaired the clamping system on the capsule's hatch, but it was not successful, Noble said.

Piccard told Noble on Friday afternoon that the rear hatch leak had still not been properly repaired, and said Elson, who had been sleeping off a headache for 10 consecutive hours, may work on it when he awakens.

Elson has suffered from a severe headache since take-off.

"Hopefully, when he wakes up the headache will be gone and he will be back to his normal self and go back to thinking about the hatch again," Noble said of Elson.

Unusually slow winds hampering progress

Due to unusually slow winds, the team is far off the original course planned for its world record attempt, which must also bypass China due to a lack of overflight permission.

At 4 p.m. local time Friday it was between the coast of Corsica and Italy, traveling at about 18 mph at an altitude of 11,000 feet, Noble said. It later picked up a bit of speed.

The balloon was expected to reach Italy, between Rome and Naples, by night.

"This is still a very low speed, less than half the speed we are looking for," he said earlier. "But it is twice as fast as we were going, so it is an improvement.

"When you are going slowly, you obviously consume as much food, oxygen and fuel as when you are going fast ... It is very worrying to us, but there is nothing you can do to change the weather. You become fatalistic when you run a balloon project."

Monday, the Breitling Orbiter balloon, towering 174 feet high, should rise to higher altitudes and catch the jet stream, possibly over southern Afghanistan, Noble said.

Once in the powerful jet stream, at an altitude of 5.6 to 8.8 miles, it is expected to be propelled at speeds from 125 to 250 mph.

"But of course you can't go off to the jet stream without the hatch being fixed," Noble said, noting that the oxygen leak from the hatch prevented the capsule from being pressurized for higher altitude flight. "We have time to look at the problem."

The Breitling Orbiter has traveled some 420 miles in what the pilots had hoped would be a two-week journey, but organizers were now predicting a longer trip.

Attempt going better than last year's

The crew members can at least seek comfort in the fact that they have lasted longer than a similar attempt last year, when Piccard and his team crash-landed in the Mediterranean after just six hours.

Theirs is the 14th attempt to capture the elusive prize of being the first to circle the globe nonstop in a balloon.

British tycoon Richard Branson, whose balloon broke its moorings and blew away empty last December, is due to make a fresh bid soon in his Global Challenger. But bad weather has grounded him in Morocco at least until Tuesday.

Last January, Piccard and Verstraeten had to ditch in the Mediterranean after only six hours with their first Breitling Orbiter when fuel leaked into the cabin.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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