Steve Fossett was back on terra firma yesterday after a hair-raising final night in the air and a bumpy landing.
Fossett, a millionaire adventurer who made aviation history this week when he completed the first non-stop solo balloon flight around the world, touched down on a remote property in Queensland at dawn yesterday.
He emerged beaming from the cramped capsule in which he had spent 15 days, to be greeted by some astonished Outback cattle ranchers.
Fossett survived the rough landing unscathed apart from a bleeding mouth, having bitten his lip during the descent.
He had spent 24 hours over the Australian interior, waiting for winds to drop so he could land. The last night was the most harrowing of the trip; he had to clamber outside in freezing temperatures to extinguish a fire and was buffeted by turbulence so severe that he donned a parachute in case he lost his grip.
Once on the ground, his sangfroid was swiftly restored. He jumped into his private plane, flew to Sydney and told a press conference that his ballooning days were over. "I might go out and rent a hot-air balloon, fly and have some fun with my friends, but I don't plan on making any more major balloon flights," he said.
The Chicago tycoon took six attempts to claim the ultimate solo balloon record. Last year, he was lucky to survive when he plummeted 29,000ft into the Coral Sea off north-east Australia.
After yesterday's landing on a rock-strewn plain his giant silver Spirit of Freedom balloon was in tatters. Fossett had been tossed about inside the gondola as it bumped along for 20 minutes, sending up clouds of red dust. When it finally came to a halt, he crawled out and waved to his ground crew, who had been in a helicopter chasing the balloon.
"It wasn't what I'd hoped for, but fortunately the Outback is a very big place and I didn't run into any power lines," he said. "I was concerned about being dragged for ever and looking like a hamburger by the afternoon."
Fossett, who began his voyage in West Australia last month, crossed an invisible finish line when he sailed past 117 degrees longitude on Tuesday.
Asked why he had risked his life again, he replied: "It's a grand adventure."
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