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Sunday, 5 August, 2001, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Solo balloon challenge under way
Steve Fossett
Mr Fossett hopes the journey will take 15 days
US billionaire balloonist Steve Fossett has taken off on his sixth attempt to make the first solo balloon flight around the world.

He has run into problems with vital communication equipment on board but has told his support team that he is trying to solve the problem.


I am a bit nervous about the first night - on the first night I will find out if everything works

Steve Fossett
Six weeks after his previous abortive attempt, the Solo Spirit slowly rose from the ground at the launch site in Northam, about 100km (60 miles) east of Perth, the Western Australia state capital.

Mr Fossett said he was confident before lift-off, despite weeks of delays and setbacks.

The launch won cheers and applause at Mr Fossett's mission control at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

Click here for a map of the route

Fossett balloon
The 1998 attempt ended in the sea
Winds blowing in the wrong direction delayed the lift-off by about five hours, but inflation of the balloon finally started late Saturday night and continued into Sunday morning.

"The team have some trepidation" about wind conditions, Mr Fossett said as inflation began, "But we feel we have to give it a go. We cannot continue to wait for ideal conditions... It is a big risk."

He added: "I am a bit nervous about the first night. On the first night I will find out if everything works, if there are any leaks in the balloon, if there are any failures in communications and if the all-important heating works."

Approaching thunderstorms

The beginning of the journey sees Mr Fossett speeding over Australia's central desert at a height of 6km to 8km (four to five miles).

Solo Spirit facts
Height: 43m
Width: 18m
Helium: 15,000 cubic metres
Hot air: 3,000 cubic metres
Cruising altitude: 7.5km
Maximum altitude: 9km
The Solo Spirit should reach speeds of up 210km/h (130mph) in jetstream winds.

Mr Fossett will face his first serious challenge on day two, when there is a chance of thunderstorms east of Brisbane, Australia, the mission's chief meteorologist, Bob Rice, said from the United States.

"We have something coming up right away and quick to focus our attention and Steve's attention," Mr Rice said.

And, he added, "There is no point when a balloon is in the air that you feel comfortable."

Wind damage

Try, try again
First attempt: Downed in Canada
Second attempt: Ran low on fuel after Libyan refusal to use airspace
Third attempt: Forced down over southern Russia
Fourth attempt: Brought down in Pacific by storm four days short of goal
Fifth attempt: Winds destroy balloon during inflation in Australia
In Fossett's last attempt six weeks ago, a gust of wind at Kalgoorlie in Australia toppled the helium canisters, ripping the balloon's membrane.

The balloon was repaired and readied for another attempt at the record from Northam, which was chosen for its more favourable local weather conditions.

Fossett's balloon, which stands 43m (140 feet) high and 18m (60 feet) wide, is very vulnerable to winds at ground level.

The team hopes the flight eastward around the globe will take about 15 days.

Fossett nearly succeeded in his long-held ambition of flying around the world solo on his fourth attempt, in 1998, but he was dumped into the sea east of Australia by a violent thunderstorm.

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The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"Hundreds cheered as Solo Spirit eventually left the ground"
See also:

17 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Solo balloonist grounded
16 Aug 98 | Americas
Balloonist ditches into sea
03 Mar 00 | Americas
World balloon record attempt fails
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