Balloon takes short-cut in record chase

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The Independent Online
IN AESOP'S fable, the tortoise won the race by plodding on steadily, while the hare rested, thinking he could sprint past his rival. But in a modern race in the skies, the outcome is far less certain.

Two teams are competing to be the first to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. The Cable and Wireless entry, which lifted off 13 days ago, has a head start, but the Breitling Orbiter 3, which left yesterday, is smaller, lighter and faster.

And, crucially, the Breitling 3 has permission to fly over Chinese airspace, shortening its journey by some 4,000 miles. Cable and Wireless must go round, thanks to Richard Branson. His balloon drifted over China before Christmas, provoking an official complaint and all British-registered balloons have been banned from Chinese space while the Civil Aviation Authority investigates.

Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss pilot, and Brian Jones, from Wiltshire, set off from Chateau d'Oex, in Switzerland, at 0805 GMT yesterday and quickly reached an average speed of 30mph. Their rivals, Andy Elson, 45, from Wells in Somerset, and Colin Prescot, 48, from Stockbridge in Hampshire, are drifting at 15mph over the Bay of Bengal, hoping to reach Japan in four days.

But Aaron Noble, the flight manager for Breitling, said his team hopes to reach Japan in eight days, narrowing the gap. "Their balloon is built for a slow trudge around the world and ours is built for a quick dash," he said. "We cannot catch up if we use the same route. Over the Pacific we will be sharing the same winds so we will remain four days behind but it all depends what happens when we reach America.

"Cable and Wireless may decide to go across America and Canada and by the time we get there the winds may have changed. Then it might be better to go south to California, which is shorter and we might catch up that way."

A spokeswoman for the Cable and Wireless team admitted having to go around China was frustrating but said they were too busy concentrating on their own flight to worry about Breitling.

At 191ft, the Cable and Wireless balloon is 40ft taller than the Breitling one, with a capacity of 1.1m cubic feet compared with 650,000. The fuel is kerosene, instead of the more usual propane, which can be stored in lighter unpressurised containers, allowing the craft to stay in the air longer.

As Mr Elson and Mr Prescot cannot fly over China, they have allowed 25 days for their 20,000-mile journey. Mr Piccard, 41, whose grandfather Auguste set the first balloon altitude record in the 1930s, and Mr Jones are hoping to cover 16,000 miles in 16 days.

Richard Branson now says he will try to circumnavigate the globe from the southern hemisphere in the summer.

In Aesop's fable, slow and steady won the race. But in the latest challenge, Mr Branson is not even a contender.