January 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Transglobal Balloon Quest To End Early Short On Fuel, American Plans To Land In India But Still Sets Distance Record

Malcolm W. Browne New York Times
 
Tags:voyage

With his effort to circle the Earth non-stop by balloon only half-completed, Steve Fossett was running low on fuel Sunday as he coasted over India and prepared to end his epic flight. But though his voyage is doomed to fail, it will go into the record books as the longest balloon trip in history.

On the recommendation of his meteorology team at Loyola University in Chicago, Fossett descended late Sunday to an altitude of 1,000 feet, where the wind was barely strong enough to ease him along at 15 mph.

“Steve is dangerously near the Himalayas,” said Timothy E. Kemper, his spokesman, “and we’ve put him in a kind of parking mode to avoid winds that would take him toward the mountains but still would allow him to stay up long enough to claim the duration record for balloons.”

For six hours Sunday, Fossett’s team lost communication with the balloonist, and his meteorologist was unable to warn him that a storm front was closing in on him.

“It’s night where he is, and if he were to attempt a landing as a storm hit, it could be disaster,” said Frank Hartmann, one of the team’s experts.

When satellite communication was restored, Fossett cheerfully reported having weathered the first of the thunderstorms passing his position near Varanasi, India.

There were signs, however, that the 52-year-old balloonist was on the verge of exhaustion after nearly six days aloft, getting less than three hours of sleep a day in an unpressurized capsule in which the temperature usually was far below freezing.

His balloon derives most of its lift from helium gas but needs supplementary hot air to rise above mountain ranges and to maintain altitude during the chill of night flying. The hot air is provided by three large burners fueled by propane gas.

The balloon began its flight from St. Louis carrying 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.

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 for a balloon flight, which was established in 1992 when Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo stayed aloft for just over six days for a total of 144 hours and 16 minutes in the air on a flight from Maine to Morocco.

The Solo Spirit ground team at Loyola University in Chicago had a plane standing by in New Delhi Sunday to fly to whatever site Fossett chose for landing. If the balloon were to land in India, the team was prepared to send out rescue cars and trucks contributed by Indian balloonists to pick up Fossett and his capsule. But if Fossett decided to push on into Bangladesh, rescue would take longer because Bangladesh has no balloonists - and therefore no expert volunteers, a team member said.

Satellite communications have been hampered partly because winds keep rotating the Solo Spirit, turning its satellite dish antenna away from its proper alignment.

“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.”

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.

Fossett’s Solo Spirit and the Swiss Breitling Orbiter, very similar in design, were made by the Donald Cameron company. Noble assisted both flights.

“The heartbreaking failure of the Breitling Orbiter,” he said, “was caused by the lack of a 50-cent clip that should have connected a plastic fuel line with a metal one. That was what caused the leak that doomed the flight.”

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.

MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition

Changed in the Spokane edition

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