Steve Fossett’s silver balloon drifted down to a field of mustard and wheat and the applause of hundreds of villagers - none of whom could communicate with the Chicago adventurer.
It took a villager an hour’s walk on rain-ravaged roads Monday to bring back a policeman who could speak English. Then Fossett was taken to a nearby town, a curry dinner and bed - having failed to fly non-stop around the world but setting records for distance and endurance in a balloon.
“As I prepared to land, I saw hundreds of people. I did not know what to expect. But they were lovely people. They all cheered me,” Fossett said in an interview late Monday, appearing relaxed and jovial in running shoes, gray slacks and several days’ growth of beard.
The 52-year-old securities trader set off in his Solo Spirit from St. Louis last week. After running out of fuel, he landed Monday at Piparpur, about 370 miles southeast of New Delhi, the capital of India.
He later was brought to nearby Sultanpur to eat and sleep.
“I had a little rough landing, but the only problem I have is that I am way behind in sleeping,” Fossett said. He said he had had only two hours of sleep a day.
He traveled 9,000 miles and floated in the air for six days, two hours and 54 minutes, said Fossett’s ground crew in Chicago.
The fuel problem that robbed Fossett of a round-the-world feat remains unexplained. He had lifted off with an ample supply - 700 gallons of propane fuel in tanks.
“I have to have a closer look why it didn’t work,” he said in an interview at the police chief’s house in Sultanpur.
Fossett burned up extra fuel waiting for Libya to give him clearance to fly over, spokesman Bo Kemper said, but that alone doesn’t explain the fuel shortfall.
Fossett had hoped to become the first hot-air balloonist to travel non-stop around the world, but he had to settle for breaking his own record for the longest distance traveled in a balloon and for setting another record for staying aloft longer than any other balloonist had.
He also claimed an altitude record but could not immediately say what height he had reached or what the previous record was.
Fossett matched a six-day, 16-minute balloon endurance mark about 11:30 a.m., then hovered at 500 to 1,000 feet, drifting with the winds for more than an hour.
Fossett had conceded from the start that his chances of making it around the world were slim.
Unlike other balloonists who 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.
He endured bitter cold in his cramped cabin. For long stretches, temperatures hovered near zero while he was flying too high for his heaters to work properly.
On Jan. 8, British tycoon Richard Branson’s balloon, Global Challenger, was forced down by equipment problems in the North African desert 19 hours after lifting off from Marrakech, Morocco, with three crew members.
Four days later, Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard and his crew ditched in the Mediterranean Sea after kerosene fumes had filled their cockpit. They lasted only six hours.