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World - Asia/Pacific

Balloonists pass halfway mark in around-the-world bid

March 13, 1999
Web posted at: 3:43 p.m. EST (2043 GMT)

GENEVA (CNN) -- A British-Swiss team passed the halfway point on Saturday in its attempt to be the first balloonists to fly around the world nonstop.

"The crossing passed almost unnoticed," said Alan Noble, the flight director of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon team. "We saw it, but no champagne corks popped. It's a psychological step, I think. It's taken them 12 days to get to that point, and the wind's a bit slow at the moment, which makes everybody unhappy."

Pilots Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Brian Jones of Great Britain took off from Switzerland on March 1. On Saturday, they were 13,440 miles (21,500 km) from the launch point.

The balloon was 2,115 miles (3,400 km) west of Honolulu when it crossed the halfway mark, sailing at a leisurely 35 mph (56 k/hr).

The team plans to catch a subtropical jet stream south of Hawaii early next week that would take them over Mexico and into the Caribbean. They hope to complete the circumnavigation by landing in North Africa next Saturday or Sunday.

Two balloonists who have failed in attempts to circle the planet sent messages to congratulate Jones and Piccard on their progress. Steve Fossett wished the pair "a safe flight to Mexico," and Richard Branson told the two "it really does look like you could do it this time."

Jones and Piccard planned Saturday to take advantage of the slower speeds to climb out of the balloon's gondola for minor repairs and adjustments. The pair stepped outside Friday for the first time in eight days.

"The smell inside the gondola has improved with fresh air," Noble quoted Jones as saying after the pair had returned to the gondola.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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