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Friday, December 18, 1998 Published at 08:02 GMT


Branson balloon crosses Algeria



British tycoon Richard Branson and his balloon crew are flying over Algeria at 28,000ft following the successful lift-off from Morocco on the latest attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon.


BBC's Jane O'Brien: The last great prize in aviation
The entrepreneur and his two co-pilots - Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand and Chicago millionaire Steve Fossett - left Marrakech on Friday shortly after 0900 GMT.

A spokeswoman for the venture confirmed that the balloon was on schedule and was "going very well".

Fears unfounded

The latest round-the-world attempt was at the centre of a brief moment of drama on Friday night after the official Website showed the balloon dropping rapidly.

The altimeter on the Java tracker, part of the official Ico Global site, showed the balloon dropping from 2,000ft to 600ft in 10 minutes.

It emerged that the tracker system on the site overloaded because of four million hits in a 24-hour period. The spokeswoman for the team confirmed that technicians were working on solving the problem.

"I'd just like to reassure them that the balloon is presently flying over Algeria and everything is fine," she said.

Great balloon challenge
The crew have reported only one problem - two tiny holes in the fabric which attaches the balloon to the capsule were detected shortly after take-off but the damage is described as minimal.

The flight has been dedicated to the memory of Alex Ritchie, who saved Branson's life in January 1997 when the Virgin Global Challenger crash-landed in Algeria.

Ritchie was later killed in a parachuting accident and his two sons Duncan and Alistair were given the task of pushing the button to release the balloon.

During the night members of the ground crew worked to inflate the enormous envelope of the balloon which, when pumped full of helium, stands higher than Nelson's Column in London.

The task is a delicate one - last year's mission came to an unfortunate end when a gust of wind broke the balloon from its moorings and it floated away across the mountains before any of the crew had a chance to get on board.

Accompanying the ground crew's latest efforts, 400 Moroccan entertainers from all over the country played music, danced and did acrobatics to the beat of traditional drums.

Fourth attempt

This is Richard Branson's fourth attempt at the round-the-world record. This year's mission has been complicated by the bombing of Iraq.

The team's meteorologist predicts that current weather patterns will send the balloon within 50 to 100 miles (80-160 km) of the Iraqi border but if it threatens to get even closer, the team hopes to steer a course to the north by changing altitude.


[ image: Winds are forecast to take the balloon along the Iraqi border]
Winds are forecast to take the balloon along the Iraqi border
"The jetstream winds are some of the strongest we have ever seen in the three years we have attempted to circumnavigate the globe," Branson said on Thursday.

"Although the winds take us along the border of Iraq, we are confident that we will not cross it." Avoiding Iraq will add about 10 days to the journey.

Between them, Mr Branson and Mr Fossett have notched up six unsuccessful attempts to grasp perhaps the last great prize in aviation.

They plan to follow the same 24,000-mile route as envisaged last year, crossing North Africa, Saudi Arabia, India and the South China sea, the Pacific Ocean and the US, before landing somewhere in Western Europe 14 to 21 days later.

The ICO Global balloon will be tracked on its path around the world from a control centre in Uxbridge, Middlesex, which will also act as the main base for any search and rescue operation in the event that the balloon is forced to make a premature landing.



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