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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Balloonist Halts Bid In Russia




KRASNODAR, Southern Russia -- For the fourth time, Steve Fossett's high-flying hopes to become the first solo balloonist to fly nonstop around the world fell slowly to earth on Monday along with his craft.


After piloting his hot-air balloon more than 11,000 kilometers and crossing the Black Sea, he touched down softly on a farm, thwarted by equipment failures.


"I decided that I needed to land because my equipment wasn't going to make it around the world," Fossett said, weary but smiling through several days worth of stubble.


Farmer Mikhail Panchenko was fixing his tractor out in the field when he saw the shimmering craft floating toward earth.


"It came down quickly, quickly and then -- thud -- it hit the ground," he said. "I was so scared I dropped my tools and started running away. I thought it was a UFO that would take me away."


Then he saw Fossett waving. Panchenko rushed over and helped him deflate the balloon and kept him company until emergency officials arrived.


Fossett said he made the decision to abort the mission a day earlier when one of his two burners failed as he passed over Bulgaria. But he said he was too close to the Black Sea to land immediately.


"I had two burners, and one had a part that had failed, and the other was starting to develop the same failure," he said. "I didn't have time to land in Bulgaria, and I had to fly the whole extra day."


Fossett was brought by helicopter to Krasnodar, about 60 kilometers south of the landing site, where doctors found him in excellent health, said Vladimir Chizhik, an emergency services spokesman.


Fossett planned to spend a day or two in Krasnodar, recovering from the ordeal and packing up his equipment. His $350,000 balloon remained in Panchenko's muddy field, where unseasonably warm weather had melted all the snow.


Fossett, 53, a Chicago commodities trader, took off from St. Louis, Missouri, on Wednesday. He enjoyed only a few days of clear sailing before his troubles began.


His cockpit heater and directional controls began failing Saturday, and the temperature in the 2-meter-by-1 1/2-meter gondola dropped to about minus 4 degrees Celsius. The heater was supposed to keep the cockpit at 7 to 10 degrees Celsius.


Adding to Fossett's trouble was the failure of one of the two propane burners that are fired whenever the hot-air portion of his helium and hot-air craft must be heated for extra lift. Fossett was forced to crawl through the bubble top of his gondola to fire them manually, allowing more cold air inside.


Fossett also was unable to maneuver the balloon into the fast-moving subtropical jet stream farther south. Hot-air balloons cannot be steered with any precision, so their course depends on high-altitude wind conditions, which are usually best in December and January.


Asked whether he would make another attempt, Fossett said, "I haven't made any decision. I want to get home and be warm."


Fossett had hoped he might break his own record of traveling 10,361 miles (16,673 kilometers) in a balloon, or his own record for longest duration, six days and 2 1/2 hours. Those records were set in January 1997, when he was forced to land in a mustard field in India because he ran out of fuel.


He broke neither record. The landing site is about 11,750 kilometers from St. Louis, and his flight lasted about 4 1/2 days.


In addition to the attempt in January 1997, Fossett tried to fly around the world in January 1996, but was forced to land in Canada. In 1995, Fossett had become the first person to fly solo across the Pacific in a balloon. Ground control said that he didn't announce it at the time, but he had really hoped to continue around the world that time, making this week's effort his fourth attempt.


His failures have not daunted others, and some other balloonists are gearing up to make their own tries later this week.


Pilot Dick Rutan of Mojave, California, veteran of the first nonstop airplane flight around the world, and co-pilot Dave Melton of Espanola, New Mexico, plan to launch Tuesday from Albuquerque, New Mexico.


In Switzerland, the Breitling Orbiter 2 team announced plans to begin its own quest Thursday. The balloon will be manned by pilots Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Vim Verstraeten of Belgium and flight engineer Andy Elson of Britain. Piccard is the grandson of scientist Auguste Piccard, who made the first stratospheric flight.


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The team will be making its second attempt to fly around the world. Last January, the crew splashed into the Mediterranean Sea just six hours after takeoff when kerosene fumes in the cabin choked off their air supply and hampered their breathing.Last week another bid by U.S. balloonist Kevin Uliassi, who took off from Loves Park, Illinois, was halted after about two hours when a burst helium container forced him to land.


British tycoon Richard Branson was frustrated in his latest round-the-world attempt in December when his balloon slipped its moorings in Morocco shortly before takeoff. His balloon is being repaired in Britain, and workers hope to begin testing it late next week. Branson hopes to take off in late January, again from Morocco, but no firm date has been set.