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Balloonists abandon round-the-world balloon flight

Breitling Orbiter 2   
February 4, 1998
Web posted at: 11:21 a.m. EDT (1121 GMT)

GENEVA (CNN) -- Three Europeans trying for a record-setting, nonstop balloon flight around the world officially abandoned their attempt Wednesday, after China maintained its refusal to let the Breitling Orbiter 2 ride a jet stream through its airspace, organizers said.

Flight director Alan Noble said the balloon likely would land in Burma or Thailand later this week, after a more-than-weeklong journey rife with problems with gear, weather and geopolitics.

"They're disappointed," Noble acknowledged from the balloon's Swiss mission control center. However, he said the flight team also appreciates China's point of view.

"We can't force the doors (of China)," meteorologist Pierre Eckert told Swiss television. "But now we have a new strategy -- for them to fly as long as possible" in an attempt to break a major aeronautical record.

Decision made while over India

The huge balloon was over India when the team abandoned its round-the-world bid. Crossing China on the high-speed jet stream that flows through the country had been vital to the craft's chances of circling the globe before running out of fuel.

Beijing officials had been silent since Tuesday, despite appeals from the governments of Switzerland, Britain and Belgium -- all three of which have nationals on the balloon -- to let them in.

Alan Noble, mission contol director, says crew members have much to be proud of
icon 204K/18 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

"We hope that we can come talk to them and perhaps come to a strategy we can all agree on for flights next year," Noble said.

The Orbiter crew set a record Tuesday for time spent in the air in a balloon, beating the record set January 7, 1997, by U.S. balloonist Steve Fossett of six days, two hours and 44 minutes. However, the American businessman traveled 10,000 miles, or three times as far, in his Solo Spirit.

Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, Belgian pilot and navigator Wim Verstraeten and British flight engineer Andrew Elson received a congratulatory message from Fossett for having surpassed his world endurance record.

Another record sought

Eckert said the team would now fly toward Southeast Asia and try to beat the nine day, four-minute record for the longest unfueled flight by plane or balloon. "They are having fun," another flight official said.

The Orbiter 2 lifted off from the Swiss village of Chateau d'Oex on January 28 and had flown 3,140 miles by midday Tuesday, Noble said.

After a slow start over France and Italy, the balloon caught faster winds over the weekend, unexpectedly bringing it over Iraqi air space Sunday. Baghdad hastily granted permission for a flyover, but once over Iran, the balloon was suddenly ordered to land at the nearest airport by patrolling army jets.

Air traffic control in Tehran intervened and gave the balloonists the go-ahead, and they drifted to Afghanistan in their combination helium and hot-air craft before crossing into Pakistan.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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