The round-the-world hopes of the American adventurer Steve Fossett and his British-made balloon were in tatters last night after high winds tore gashes in the 140ft Solo Spirit.
A gust blew over the balloon while it was being inflated at an airfield in Australia, causing two tether lines to tear away and cause serious damage.
Mr Fossett, an investment tycoon from Chicago, was not on board at the time and nobody was injured during the preparation stages for his fifth round-the-world attempt. He said the balloon would have to be sent back to Britain for repair because it was so badly damaged, with two 10ft gashes, and would not be ready for a fresh attempt this year.
Don Cameron, owner of the Bristol-based Cameron Balloons, which provided the craft, said: "We do not yet know whether it is a show-stopper or whether we can carry on. The balloons are enormous and if winds come across like a big spinning top, they can drag the balloon all over the place. That is why we go to great pains to do weather forecasts."
Mr Fossett indicated that the setback might lead him to give up the challenge. "It takes a good chunk of a person's life to do this," he said. "I'm not sure there is going to be another attempt. We had put all our efforts into this attempt."
Hundreds of people had gathered at the tiny airport in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, to watch the balloon being inflated. The process takes hours and light winds are essential.
Mr Fossett, 57, planned to spend about 15 days in the cramped capsule for the attempt. Jetstream winds had been predicted to propel the balloon eastward at a height of up to 30,000ft and speeds of 130mph. The planned flight path would have taken him around the globe in the southern hemisphere, with almost 90 per cent of the route over water.
Mr Fossett has made four unsuccessful attempts over the past five years at a non-stop circumnavigation by balloon. On his last attempt in December 1998, with Sir Richard Branson, the balloon came down near Hawaii after setting off from Morocco. In March 1999, the feat was achieved by Bertrand Piccard, from Switzerland, and Brian Jones, an English balloon instructor, in Breitling Orbiter.