Slow winds threaten to ground non-stop balloon

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THREE European balloonists attempting to circle the globe non-stop crossed Italy heading east yesterday on the fourth day of their flight.

But the trio, including British flight engineer Andy Elson, are still making slow progress,travelling at less than 10mph at a height of about 16,000ft.

Low wind speeds since the balloon launched from Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland on Wednesday coupled with low fuel levels mean the crew face the possibility of having to bring the craft down before they reach their destination of Algeria.

Mr Elson, an enthusiast for high-risk sports, is going to have to climb outside the capsule for the second time to try to eliminate an air leak, mission control said. "I will take my parachute and if all goes horribly wrong I can use that so it will be reasonably comfortable," Mr Elson said.

Inside the balloon's six-tonne orange and blue cabin with Mr Elson are the mission leader Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist from a famous family of explorers, and a Belgian pilot, Wim Verstraeten.

Unless Mr Elson succeeds in plugging the leak, the three will not be able to take the balloon up to 9,000-14,000 metres (six to nine miles) to catch the jet stream winds which should sweep the balloon across the Middle East at 125-250 miles an hour. To fly at those heights, they need to pressurise their cabin, but they cannot do that if the leak is not stopped.

Without the speed the stream can give them, it is unlikely that the trio would have enough fuel to keep heating the air in the huge balloon above since the voyage would then take much longer than the planned two weeks.

This is the latest in a series of attempts to fly round the world non- stop in a hot-air balloon - a feat never yet achieved.

Piccard and Verstraeten had to ditch in the Mediterranean after only six hours aloft last year. Steve Fossett, a US stockbroker, reached southern Russia from Omaha earlier this month after getting as far as India last year.

Two other Americans had to parachute to ground shortly after lift-off from New Mexico two weeks ago when their balloon started leaking helium.

The businessman Richard Branson, who also had to come down after only a few hours last year, is preparing for a new launch from Marrakesh in Morocco. But aides said the earliest he could take off now was Tuesday. Reuters