Running out of fuel, American balloonist Steve Fossett told air traffic controllers he would abandon his second attempt to circle the globe in a balloon and land today in eastern India.
Fossett, a 52-year-old securities trader from Chicago, was hovering in his huge silver balloon, Solo Spirit, about 1,000 feet above the airport at Varanasi, said J.S. Deepak, district magistrate.
The balloon is expected to land today near the village of Babatpur, seven miles south of the airport, Deepak said in a telephone interview from Varanasi, 490 miles southeast of New Delhi.
Fossett’s ground crew in Chicago said the balloonist matched a six-day, 16-minute balloon endurance mark about 11:30 a.m. local time but needed to stay in the air for another hour for a record to be recognized.
News of Fossett’s achievement prompted cheers and a countdown at his ground crew’s headquarters at Loyola University in Chicago. The old endurance record was set in 1995 by Richard Abruzzo and Troy Bradley of Alburquerque, N.M., crew members said.
The crew, who has been keeping in touch with Fossett by computer, also reported a technical problem in the balloon’s cabin, possibly an electrical short, but said it does not pose any danger to the millionaire adventurer.
“Things look good,” spokesman Bo Kemper said. “It looks like he’s going to be safe.”
Kemper also said officials from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., had called to ask for Fossett’s capsule for the museum.
Lacking enough fuel to make it across the Pacific Ocean, Fossett decided that halfway would have to be good enough in his attempt to fly non-stop around the world.
Fossett had lifted off with 3,320 pounds of compressed propane, which had been considered adequate for an 18-day flight. But by Sunday, after six days in the air, the balloon had only about a two-day supply left.
His ground crew was unable to explain why he ran short.
“That’s a big mystery to everybody here,” crew member Doug Blount said from Chicago. “We just don’t know. There are a bunch of different theories.”
Part of the problem was caused by a delay forced on Fossett when it appeared that Libya would not permit the balloon to fly over the country. Precious propane was wasted when he changed to a southerly course, until Libya relented later in the day. But even without that delay, the balloon, called the Solo Spirit, evidently could not have achieved its goal.
By Sunday afternoon, the Solo Spirit, which began its flight one week ago from Busch Stadium in St. Louis, was speeding over central India at 150 miles an hour and an altitude of about 24,000 feet. Aside from burning more fuel than planned, the balloon had behaved impeccably.
By midday Sunday Fossett had covered more than 8,000 miles - a distance far greater than that of any previous balloon flight, including his own record-setting trip in 1995 of 5,438.08 miles, from South Korea to Canada. Fossett expected that shortly after midnight Sunday, eastern standard time, he would also break the duration record.
He had hoped to become the first balloonist to fly nonstop around the globe, but conceded from the start that it was a long shot.
On Sunday, Fossett and his ground support team decided that he must land before he began passing over the rugged mountains of Southeast Asia or the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike other balloonists who had set out earlier this month to try to float around the world, Fossett was flying solo, in an unpressurized cabin capped by a Plexiglas bubble. Fossett has endured bitterly cold temperatures in his cramped 4-by-6-1/2-foot cabin.
“We can only surmise that Steve is enduring awful conditions,” said Alan Noble, a technical expert with the Donald Cameron company, a British balloon manufacturer. “But he’s a man of steel and wouldn’t complain about anything.”
For long stretches, temperatures in the cabin hovered near zero while he was flying too high for his heaters to work properly. The prolonged cold spells led to fatigue.
“He’s been unable to sleep as much as he should have been able to sleep because the capsule’s been cold,” said Bruce Comstock, another ground crew member.
Before he set off on this trip, Fossett said despite the bitter cold, mid-winter is the best time for such an attempt because of brisk winds and fewer thunderstorms.
Fossett failed his first round-the-world attempt one year ago.
Fossett’s was the third attempt this month at a nonstop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon. Two others, the Virgin Global Challenger, with the British balloonist Richard Branson in command, and a Swiss balloon flown by Dr. Bertrand Piccard and a Belgian crew member, were each forced to land after only one day in the air. The British balloon lost lift over Algeria and landed in the desert, and two days later the Swiss balloon developed a kerosene leak that nearly suffocated its crew. The crew ditched the balloon in the Mediterranean Sea.
The reason for the Swiss failure was disclosed Sunday as the lack of a 50-cent clip that should have connected a plastic fuel line with a metal one.
Both Branson and Piccard have said they would make new attempts at flying around the world next year, when winds are again favorable. A fourth balloon team hopes to launch an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the southern hemisphere next December.
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