Balloonist blown by Gaddafi whims

Muammar Gaddafi, not one to skip a chance to annoy the Great Satan, might have single-handedly scuppered America's latest shot at glory, a solo attempt to circle the Earth in a balloon.

Libya first denied, then granted Steve Fossett, the balloon's pilot, permission to enter Libyan airspace, but the delay obliged him to take a southern detour over Niger and Chad, wasting precious fuel. Latest reports from mission control at Loyola University, Chicago, had him overflying Egypt propelled by favourable winds at a good speed of 97 knots.

Mr Fossett, a millionaire who is funding the expedition out of his own pocket, lifted off from St Louis, Missouri, on Monday night, equipped with fuel and supplies to sustain him over what he hoped would be an 18- day circumnavigation of the globe. A report yesterday morning from the ground crew at mission control, which is receiving blow by blow accounts of the flight's status from Mr Fossett's laptop computer aboard Solo Spirit, said there was still "a slight chance" their pilot might yet become the first man to circumnavigate the globe by balloon. The good news was that he had already broken his own world distance record for balloon flight, set last February when he successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean, and his immediate aim now was to break the record for number of hours in flight.

"It's heartbreaking," said Bo Kemper, a spokesman at Mission Control. "We had fantastic luck on this try - good weather and winds, perfect balloon performance. Of course, Steve still has a chance, if his luck holds out."

Libya's initial refusal on Friday afternoon to allow him over its territory obliged him to tack south of the jetstream, cutting the balloon's speed by half and burning up excessive quantities of the all-important propane fuel that keeps the vessel airborne. Mr Fossett's "luck" will depend on whether he picks up winds sufficiently strong to compensate for the time lost over North Africa. If not, his support team said earlier, he could come to Earth in India.

While Mr Gaddafi's change of heart late on Friday might turn out to be a case of too little too late, it did allow the balloon pilot to veer north, clipping Libya's south-eastern corner and dramatically improving his speed. The wilful Libyan leader may have been swayed by Richard Branson, who despite the failure of his own transglobal balloon attempt earlier this month, sportingly appealed to Mr Gaddafi to show Mr Fossett mercy.

Should the American succeed in his mission Mr Branson might experience some mixed emotions, but he would perhaps take comfort in the thought that a triumph for Mr Fosset would be a triumph for Britain. Solo Spirit was made by Cameron Balloons Ltd of Bristol.