Balloonist Fossett begins sixth attempt to fly around world

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The Independent Online

Tycoon Steve Fossett was last night heading towards the Pacific Ocean in his latest attempt to become the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.

The 57-year-old adventurer looked calm and confident as he took to the air from the Western Australian desert at dawn yesterday (local time) in the Solo Spirit. The former stockbroker's sixth quest to circle the globe was launched at 11pm GMT from a remote airfield in Northam, 60 miles east of Perth, after weeks of delays caused by bad weather.

The giant helium-filled balloon's slow ascent, watched by a nervous ground crew and cheered by 150 local residents, went well despite fears the 140 by 60ft balloon would make it vulnerable to even light winds.

"The first 24 hours will be critical," said the American before the launch.

"In the first night I will have to find out whether the equipment is working. That's when I'll find out whether there are any leaks in the balloon, whether there's failures in the communication equipment and whether the all-important cabin heaters work."

Mr Fossett said that if the weather permitted, he expected to cross Australia's eastern coast yesterday before flying across the Pacific Ocean. By nightfall the former stockbroker was nearing the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. Mission control in Missouri said all was going smoothly after minor communication troubles were remedied when Mr Fossett climbed out of his capsule to mend an antenna. But, the mission's chief meteorologist Bob Rice said the Solo Spirit could run into thunderstorms over Brisbane en route to the Pacific.

Mr Fossett plans to cross the northern part of New Zealand, fly to Chile, then over the Andes. The balloon is then expected to drift around the tip of South Africa, and then directly across the Indian Ocean.

He hopes to complete the trip in 15 days, spending most of that time in a cramped capsule at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, travelling at speeds up to 130mph, surviving on military style food rations which heat themselves chemically. He has a life-raft, parachute and satellite navigation and communications equipment.

Mr Fossett's journey will be long and difficult. Only one two-man team has ever flown a balloon around the world. English balloon instructor Brian Jones and Swiss psychiatrist Betrand Piccard steered the Breitling Orbiter around the globe in 1999.

Mr Fossett said the elusiveness of a successful solo circumnavigation was the attraction. "This is a very important adventure and a very difficult one," he said. "When I first started making attempts to fly around the world in a balloon I thought it would just be a matter of get the equipment, get it up in the air and somehow I'd make it. Then after about 20 attempts by all the teams combined we realised it was far more difficult."

His most recent bid in June was thwarted when a freak gust of wind blew over the gas attached to the capsule and ripped the envelope.