Balloonists see their dream deflated before take-off

The latest attempt to circle the globe in a balloon, by three men including a British engineer, ended before it began yesterday. Kathy Marks in the Swiss Alps, explains what happened and asks why this elusive quest excites such passions.

The conditions were perfect for a launch at first light yesterday morning in Chateau d'Oex, in the Swiss Alps. The 177ft-high silver balloon should have lifted off into the skies and floated across the Mediterranean towards Africa, on the first leg of its 20,000-mile voyage.

The Breitling Orbiter 2 balloon would have been carrying three men who have pinned their hopes on flying around the world non-stop, propelled only by the winds.

But disaster struck as it was being unloaded by crane at the launch site. The four cables that secure the gondola to the canopy inexplicably slipped their fastenings, sending it crashing back on the lorry that had transported it. Repairs and weather patterns will delay take-off for at least a week.

The gods have not smiled on successive attempts by rival teams to be the first to circumnavigate the Earth in this fashion. Just this week, American Steve Fossett, thwarted by faulty equipment, gave up after 7,000 miles and landed his Solo Spirit balloon in Russia. Last November, Richard Branson's envelope snapped its moorings before take-off in Marrakesh, Morocco.

For the two Breitling pilots, Swiss-born Bertrand Piccard and Wim Verstraeten, a Belgian, it was their second false start. Last year they were forced to ditch in the sea just hours into their journey because of a kerosene leak. Andy Elson, a British flight engineer who was to have accompanied them this time, was asked what would have happened if the cables had failed in flight. "We would not be having this conversation now," he said.

Piccard said: "It's like having a nightmare and not being able to wake up. But it is not part of our philosophy to give up."

To many people, there is something faintly absurd about the obsession with achieving this particular feat. But to flying enthusiasts, it represents the ultimate challenge, the "last great aeronautical adventure within the world's atmosphere", as National Geographic magazine has called it.

The thirst to enter the history books was expressed eloquently by Piccard. "In this century," he said, "almost everything on the planet has been explored and discovered; all the oceans, all the mountains, all the continents ... This is maybe the last great adventure, to fly around the world with no engine and no way of steering, pushed only by the forces of Nature."

The human urge to set and break records has for centuries been associated with circumnavigation of the Earth. On the seas, it was first accomplished by the crew of the Victoria, led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, in 1522. In the air, the accolade went to two Douglas World Cruisers in 1924. George Matthew Schilling, an American, was the first to walk round the world, from 1897 to 1904.

In the rarefied world of hot-air ballooning, there has been fierce competition ever since the first manned balloon was launched in France in 1783, its burner fuelled by damp straw, old rags and rotting meat. The first person to ascend into the stratosphere was Piccard's grandfather, Auguste, in 1931.

Piccard, 39, is a psychiatrist; he planned to hypnotise his fellow team members so that they could snatch some sleep during the journey. Elson, 44, of Wells, in Somerset, spent his childhood on sailboats and says that he turned to ballooning "so I could go sailing into the sky and escape". Fossett, a millionaire securities trader, flies in an unpressurised cabin and thermal underwear.

Additionally galling to the Breitling team will be the fact that today sees the start of a rival round-the-world bid, by an American duo lifting off in New Mexico. And Branson is repairing his balloon for another attempt from Marrakesh this month. One of them, they all believe, is about to clinch it.

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