With kerosene fumes choking off their air supply, crewmen on Sunday ended a bid to circle the world in a balloon and splashed into the Mediterranean Sea just six hours after takeoff.
The failed attempt by Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Wim Verstraeten of Belgium came less than a week after a British tycoon with the same goal aborted his flight in the Algerian desert.
The pilots set down the Orbiter 19 miles south of the French resort of Montpellier after the fumes filled their high-tech cabin and hindered their breathing.
Its gigantic 149-foot silver body floated on the winter waters while a flotilla of rescue boats, backed up by a helicopter, sped to pick up the pilots.
Organizers said the problem may have been a faulty valve.
They were in the air for less time than tycoon Richard Branson, who aborted his three-man mission Wednesday after 19 hours and 400 miles, apparently because helium was leaking.
“I know only too well how they must feel,” commiserated Branson, who had traveled to Switzerland to wish his rivals well. He had said that if the Swiss-Belgian team didn’t make it, he would try again.
“The race is now still on and I’m sure both us will be back again later this year, having learned from our difficulties,” Branson told the British domestic news agency Press Association.
The other main rival for the round-the-world title is American millionaire Steve Fossett, who will likely begin his solo attempt before the end of the month.