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Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 18:30 GMT

Branson balloon bid fails

Deflated: Control centre staff pore over the failed bid

Richard Branson and his balloon crew have called off their record-breaking attempt to circumnavigate the globe after being thwarted by low air pressure in the Pacific Ocean.

BBC Correspondent Mark Percy: The mission ends in disappointment
The ICO Global balloon had begun drifting off course after becoming caught up in a weather system known as a trough.

The balloonists then took the decision to ditch the attempt after discussions by satellite phone with staff at the project's control centre in Uxbridge, Middlesex.

Branson and his two co-pilots - Per Lindstrand and Steve Fossett - are planning to conduct a controlled sea landing near Hawaii at around 1930 GMT.

Kendrick: "Timing is critical"
Project director Mike Kendrick said the crew were "deflated and terribly disappointed", but that the crew's minds were now focusing on landing the balloon safely.

'Like hitting a brick wall'

In a statement from the balloon capsule, the Virgin tycoon said the balloon had still been on track on Christmas Eve to touch down in England in three days' time.

[ image: Crew hoping to touch down in Honolulu]
Crew hoping to touch down in Honolulu
He added: "We raced across the Pacific in winds of up to 200mph but ended up hitting a solid trough from one end to the other.

"It has been like hitting up against a solid brick wall. All day and all night we battled to get through it.

"Our weather team say that it would have taken us a week to get through if we are lucky - but by the end of the week we would more likely end up in the Pacific anyway.

He said the crew had had a fascinating journey and were hoping to be back with family and friends for the rest of Christmas.

Alicia Arce reports: "A moment of enormous disappointment"
The three-man crew are to fly to the Hawaiian islands to try to land the balloon on Christmas Day.

Mr Kendrick said Honolulu had been picked because it has better search and rescue and medical facilities than the other surrounding islands.

Calling it "bad luck", the project director said the crew had missed the better weather by an hour.

He added: "That is the fickleness of the weather. It is all a question of luck."

Pilots 'most valuable'

[ image: End of the line for the ICO bid]
End of the line for the ICO bid
The strategy for ditching was being controlled by the search and rescue team experts based at Uxbridge.

Mr Kendrick said: "The good news is that the weather is calm and at this point we are treating it as a normal landing.

"Time is short, all the teams are in place, everyone is alerted, the pilots are well briefed."

David Partridge, project manager for the balloon crew, said the US coastguards would be controlling the landing, but would be in constant contact with the search and rescue headquarters of the control centre in Uxbridge.

The coastguards had already been briefed on the risks and had a good knowledge of the equipment and the balloon itself because they had been involved in the record-breaking bid for at least six months.

Uncertain landing

David Partridge: "A planned landing"
Mr Partridge said it was still unclear whether the balloon would put down in the sea or on land: "We plan to put the balloon as close to the coast as possible but it is up to the pilots to choose in the end.

"However if we foresee any risk to a third party we will definitely put down in the sea."

Branson and his co-pilots are well equipped for most eventualities including a sea landing. They are carrying a survival kit which includes a dinghy, a four-man raft, personal safety beacons and even shark repellent.

And although the landing is expected to go smoothly, Mr Partridge said: "It is an experimental aircraft flown for the first time and it is the first landing. One can never be completely confident in this.

"It is a question of giving as much information as we can, getting the pilots to fly as best we can and then at the end of the day it is up to them on landing."

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