China balks as balloonists approach airspace
February 2, 1998
Web posted at: 9:23 a.m. EDT (0923 GMT)
GENEVA (CNN) -- Three Europeans bidding to become the first
balloonists to fly around the world non-stop headed their
craft towards Pakistan on Monday in an attempt to skirt
China's southern border after the country once again denied
them permission to cross its airspace.
Officials at its Geneva airport control center said China's
refusal could seriously reduce chances for success of the
mission, now in its sixth day.
"We are trying to get China's permission through all possible
channels," said a spokesman for the flight, which on Sunday
was given a friendly welcome by Baghdad when winds blew the
balloon unexpectedly into Iraqi airspace.
"We are still hoping for good news sometime during the day."
But Beijing has insisted it could not guarantee the balloon's
safety and would therefore not grant overflight clearance.
"We hope they (the Chinese) understand that we are not
dangerous," the balloon's flight spokesman said.
Even if successful, a southward maneuver would add at least
two days to what was originally planned as a 14-day voyage,
stretching fuel supplies close to their limit.
The Orbiter -- with Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard,
Belgian pilot Wim Verstraeten and British engineer Andy Elson
in the cabin slung underneath -- lifted off from the Swiss
Alps last Wednesday on its 25,000-km (15,000-mile) journey.
After flying over the Pakistani capital Islamabad, it plans
to aim towards Lahore where -- if the Chinese open up their
borders to the mission -- it plans to rise to over 9,000
meters (21,000 feet) to catch east-blowing jet stream winds.
These would send it clipping along at around 230 km (150
miles) an hour over China and Japan and out into the Pacific,
taking it to California by the end of the week -- a timetable
to which officials say it is vital to keep.
Otherwise, the balloon will try to fly over India. Lower air
currents could take it into Chinese territory whatever the
The crew of the Breitling Orbiter-2
Near scuttle over Iran
The Orbiter's crew did get some good news Monday. A sector
of Iran which earlier in the day had challenged their plan to
pass through has changed its mind.
Flight control director Alan Noble, speaking from the Geneva
center tracking the flight of the Breitling Orbiter-2, said
that the balloon passed through Syria, Iraq and three
quarters of Iran without incident. But when the balloonists
entered a new sector of Iran, they were asked to land the
balloon at the nearest airport for identification.
Noble attributed the request to a communication breakdown,
noting that balloons attempting the around-the-world
challenge can't land and can't steer the balloon to such a
"I think it's moved into a new sector and this new director
has no idea what's going on," he told CNN International at
the time. 194 K / 18 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
However, Iran called Noble just after his statement aired and
said the balloon could finish its journey through Iranian
The balloonists encountered no problems from Baghdad,
despite tensions between Iraq and the West over a weapons
inspections impasse that has led to a buildup of U.S. and
British military forces in the region.
"The Iraqi air traffic controllers were very polite and very
helpful," a mission spokesman quoted Piccard as reporting.
Flying high again
With a leaky hatch repaired on Saturday after Elson climbed
outside, the crew was able to pressurize the cabin and then
fly much higher to take advantage of the jet stream for a key
part of their journey.
Controllers said the Orbiter could now fly at altitudes of
between 9,000 and 14,000 meters (5 to 8 miles), far higher
than during the slow first days of the journey.
If it crosses Asia safely, it will head out over the Pacific
towards the western seaboard of the United States and on
towards the Atlantic, going for an eventual touchdown
somewhere in North Africa.
Reuters contributed to this report.