January 15, 1997 in Nation/World

American Lifts Off For Voyage After Swiss, Brits Failed

New York Times

After a smooth launching from St. Louis and an uneventful trip over the eastern United States, a solo balloonist headed out over the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday, beginning what he hopes will be a non-stop voyage around the world.

The balloonist, Steve Fossett, is flying aboard the Solo Spirit in an unpressurized pilot’s capsule with minimal equipment. Fellow balloonists regard his flight as one of the most dangerous flights ever tried, partly because he is not accompanied by any flight crew and partly because of the physical exhaustion he faces during a harrowing trip that could last three weeks.

But Fossett has confounded experts before. In 1995 he completed the first solo balloon flight across the Pacific Ocean in a similar balloon, setting a balloon distance record of 5,438 miles. He believes that his relatively simple balloon gives him a better chance than that of other balloonists trying to reach the long-sought goal of being first to circle the world non-stop.

Fossett, 52, a commodities broker from Beaver Creek, Colo., is the third balloonist to begin a round-the-world flight in one week. The other two balloons, one of them British with Richard Branson in command, and the other a Swiss balloon flown by Dr. Bertrand Piccard and a Belgian balloonist, were both forced down by technical problems after less than one day in the air.

At sunset Tuesday night Fossett was over the ocean 50 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C., moving at about 60 mph at an altitude of 18,000 feet.

Timothy Kemper of Loyola University in Chicago, Fossett’s spokesman, said the balloon was expected to cross the coast of Portugal on Thursday, and was expected to fly to Spain, northern France, the English Channel, the North Sea, Denmark and northern Poland.

From there on, the balloon’s eastward track is difficult to predict.

Fossett’s Solo Spirit is equipped with a special automatic pilot, a feature that makes long-duration solo flight possible. The mechanism continuously measures the balloon’s altitude and flight angle, and turns the balloon’s propane burners on or off as needed.

The main lift is provided by helium in a cell at the top of the balloon, but another cell below it contains air that can be heated to provide extra lift as needed, especially during cold night flight.

Fossett plans to cruise at about 18,000 feet for most of his trip. Since his capsule is unpressurized, he will sometimes need to breath oxygen from a small tank.

But to keep his oxygen consumption minimal, he has prepared himself for the thin air by conditioning his body at home in a special decompression chamber.

He will eat the same military field rations used by American soldiers, and his toilet is a bucket.

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