Record men fall to earth with a bump

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"EVERYTHING," SAID Bertrand Piccard, was "absolutely wonderful". Despite a wait of more than seven hours outside the Egyptian western desert town of Mut, he and his co-pilot, Brian Jones, were euphoric.

They had, after all, become the first men to fly non-stop around the world in a balloon

Piccard, stubble showing on his slightly sunburnt face, fought back tears as he spoke. "It is a big pleasure to have landed in Egypt. My wife was born in Egypt." Jones, with typical British sang-froid, immediately asked about his wife, who had stayed in Geneva to help the ground team, and then said he would like to "have a glass of orange juice".

The Breitling Orbiter 3, bright silver and as tall as a twenty-storey building, touched down yesterday morning at 5.52 GMT, 60 miles north of the Dakhla Oasis, deep in Egypt's Western Desert.

Mr Jones, 51, from Wiltshire, said: "The eagle has landed." After 21 days and more than 29,000 miles you might have thought he'd had enough time to think of something more original. At least his companion, a 41-year-old Swiss psychiatrist, felt excited enough to jump up and down and wave his arms around wildly.

From the perspective of the balloon, the conditions were ideal - strong winds had helped to push them further east than expected and the flat desert floor presented few hidden dangers. For the pilots it was not so pleasant. When they touched down they must have thought that the worst was over. Instead the final 60 miles back to a semblance of civilisation was to be as difficult as anything they had faced since setting off from Switzerland on 1 March.

"As of last night we had two helicopters from the Egyptian Air Force lined up to come and pick the men up," said Alan Noble, the expedition flight controller. "For some reason they said they would only help if there was an emergency. It's a little sad that you get all around the world and then this." Mr Noble did not say why the local authorities should feel obliged to spend thousands of pounds on a project costing a reported pounds 6m, which had not benefited Egypt by one cent.

A giant step for mankind? page 3