Balloonists ditching round-the-world bid in Hawaii watersDecember 25, 1998
Web posted at: 2:28 p.m. EST (1928 GMT)
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HONOLULU (CNN) -- The latest attempt to break perhaps the last, great aviation record -- circumnavigating the globe nonstop in a balloon -- ended in disappointment Christmas Day after a trio of balloonists failed to outrun a low pressure system over the Pacific Ocean.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson, American Steve Fossett, and Per Lindstrand of Sweden were preparing for a controlled sea landing at 1930 GMT (2:30 p.m. EST) Friday about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Honolulu, Hawaii.
"I am sorry to have let people down," Branson told the London headquarters of the ICO Global balloon project shortly after the decision was made to abandon the flight.
"Everybody is very deflated," Mike Kendrick, director of the project, told CNN.
David Santos of the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Control in Honolulu told CNN the Coast Guard cutter Washington and a helicopter would meet the balloon.
"I haven't been involved in anything like this, and it's doubtful that the crew has been involved in anything like this, but we will be ready and able to pull it off," Santos said, when asked if the rescue would be dangerous.
The weather is overcast but calm and no problems are anticipated, Kendrick said, adding, "Of course, for a big balloon like this, any kind of landing is a tricky procedure. It's not easy at all."
The balloonists were racing at 150 mph (240 km/h) across the Pacific Ocean when they got sucked into a low pressure system that brought the balloon down close to the surface of the water near Hawaii.
At 0830 GMT (3:30 EST) on Friday, the balloon was stalled above the sea, traveling only 16 mph (26 km/h), as the adventurers made a desperate bid to catch the faster wind and exit the low pressure trough.
"There was no escape from it once we got sucked in," Kendrick said. "We tried all sorts of maneuvering but still it shot us in a southerly direction and we couldn't get out of it."
"It has been like hitting up against a solid brick wall. All day and all night long, we battled to get through it," Branson said of the trough.
"I'm sorry that it's now all over," he added. "We've had a fascinating journey and we now aim to get back with our families."
Kendrick said they had missed by about an hour the high winds that would have whisked them the rest of the way across the Pacific toward the west coast of North America.
The voyage of the 272-foot-high (83-meter-high) hot-air and helium balloon began in Marrakech, Morocco, on December 18 and reached the half-way point on its around-the-world journey on Thursday.
The decision to ditch capped a series of setbacks for the balloonists.
On the third day of the journey, storms forced the them to navigate through a narrow corridor bringing them close to three countries that had denied permission to fly over their territory: Iraq, Iran and Russia.
Fossett, who lost a balloon in the Pacific Ocean in August ago as a result of a thunderstorm, shouted to his teammates to put on their parachutes Saturday as they headed north over Turkey to avoid Iraq.
"What was worse -- a possible storm ahead or the 'storms' of Iraq?" Branson asked the ground crew. "We decided to risk the thunder and press on."
The balloon missed Iraq by 60 miles, Iran by seven miles, and Russia by just 10 miles.
"I have never seen anything like this in the 30 years I have been ballooning," said Kendrick, adding that going through such a gap was "like threading a needle."
Considerably off course, the crew flew across Turkmenistan, headed into Afghanistan and skirted down along the southern spine of the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, in a fruitless attempt to reach a permissible flight area below the 26th parallel.
China originally had given the balloonists permission to cross the country only below 26 degrees north latitude. Chinese authorities demanded that the balloon land, but last- minute diplomatic intervention by British Prime Minister Tony Blair convinced them to change their minds and let the balloon float on.
"We were beset with all sorts of problems that were all political," Kendrick said. "But in the end it was the weather that brought us down. It's a very, very difficult thing to circumnavigate the globe. Otherwise someone else would have done it by now."
The bid was the latest of nearly 20 failed attempts.
Meanwhile, before the trio's balloon had even touched the water, others were gearing up to take a shot at the record.
Colin Prescott of the Cable and Wireless balloon project said Friday his craft would be launching from Spain within three days, weather permitting.
He wished Branson and his crew a safe landing, telling Sky Television: "We have enormous sympathy for him. He has done a fantastic job. It is sad they have to come down so soon."
But he added: "I wouldn't be human if I didn't say I would be happy for them to land short of their goal."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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