Steve Fossett’s hope of circling the world non-stop in his Solo Spirit balloon was nearly crushed Friday when Libya denied him permission to fly over. But 12 hours later Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sent word that Fossett could pass over Libya.
Earlier in the day, Fossett’s ground support team at Loyola University in Chicago nearly despaired of his completing the trip. They diverted him to the south by recommending a descent to 18,000 feet into winds blowing southward toward the border of Algeria and Niger, avoiding Libyan airspace.
If the diversion had continued for many more hours, a team spokesman said, it would have slowed Fossett’s progress so seriously that it would have added two days to his travel time. The extra days could have exhausted his supply of propane, which he needs to heat air and provide lift. Expecting to have to shorten his trip, the balloonist made tentative plans to land in India.
Timothy E. Kemper, the group’s spokesman, said Friday night that Fossett would quickly climb to an altitude that would put him back on course over Libya. Although precious time was lost by the diversion, time enough remained to complete the circumnavigation, provided Fossett’s luck holds.
“We were pretty depressed during the day,” Kemper said, “but this is wonderful news. Now we have a fighting chance once again to make it around the earth.”
The Libyan permit was the second good news of the day for the Solo Spirit team. Earlier Fossett broke the world balloon distance record he himself had set in 1995, when he flew 5,438.08 miles across the Pacific Ocean from South Korea to Canada. His current flight began in St. Louis on Monday night.
All day Friday the Solo Spirit flew over the desolate desert wilderness of southeastern Algeria, and after the Libyan refusal he headed south on a course that would have taken him over Niger, Chad, Sudan and eventually Egypt and the Red Sea. But with Libya’s change of heart, he will be able to fly a much shorter route eastward, taking him along the Mediterranean coast.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Kemper said when prospects looked darkest Friday. “We had fantastic luck on this try - good weather and winds, perfect balloon performance. We thought we had a really good chance of making it around the world. Of course, Steve still has a chance, if his luck holds out.”
Thursday night Kemper broadcast an appeal to Libya on the international news service of CNN, knowing that Gadhafi frequently watches.
One of Fossett’s competitors in the round-the-world race, Richard Branson, also appealed to Libya and other nations on Fossett’s behalf.
Branson’s Virgin Global Challenger balloon team had requested and received overflight permission from Libya, but as it turned out the balloon never reached Libya. Loss of helium forced Branson and his two crew mates down in Algeria soon after beginning their attempt from Morocco on Jan. 7.
Branson is British, while Fossett is a citizen of the United States, regarded by Libya as an enemy nation.
Fossett, who made his fortune in Chicago futures trading, previously set a world record for sailing around Britain in less than six days, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn and competed in Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race.