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Technical Glitch May Deflate Balloon Trip

A British tycoon trying to make the first non-stop balloon flight around the world took off with great fanfare Tuesday but ran smack into a technical problem that made him decide to make a forced landing today.

Richard Branson’s London-based support team said in a statement early today that his 174-foot Global Challenger had developed trouble. It said no one aboard had been injured but didn’t elaborate.

Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, lifted off Tuesday from a North African military air base near Marrakech, Morocco, in a hot-air balloon stocked with caviar and a microwave.

After replacing an ill crew member at the last minute, the launch of the helium hot-air balloon went without a hitch, according to a statement from Branson’s office.

“We are about to embark on a great adventure,” Branson said shortly before setting off to claim “the last great aviation record left on earth.” His remarks were quoted by Britain’s Press Association news agency.

By dusk Tuesday, the balloon was flying at 30,000 feet and nearing the Algerian border, said Branson’s spokesman, Will Whitehorn.

“The crew are in very good spirits and the balloon looks absolutely spectacular,” he said.

But a statement from Branson’s support team early today said the balloon would be forced to land later in the day, possibly in Algeria or Libya. No details of the problem were given.

Branson’s balloon was one of three likely to try circling the world this year. A Swiss team as well as American millionaire Steve Fossett are expected to set out within the week.

Branson and his two co-pilots, Per Lindstrand and Alex Ritchie, planned an 18-day flight from North Africa over the Middle East, Iran, India, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the United States and the Atlantic before landing in Britain.

The balloon was to be followed around the world by a chase plane carrying six people.