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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 14:52 GMT

'Perfect' launch for British balloon

The latest challengers took off into clear skies and sunshine

The first all-British bid to circumnavigate the globe by balloon has got off to a "perfect" start.

Great balloon challenge
Andy Elson and Colin Prescot took off from a golf course in southern Spain at 0947 GMT on Wednesday.

The two men waved to hundreds of local well-wishers on the surrounding hilltops in the resort of Almeria as they lifted off into clear skies and dazzling sunshine.

Emma Simpson: "Their aim is to make the first twenty four hours not be the last twenty four hours"
By 1145 GMT the pair were 20 miles south-west of Almeria and being carried along at up to 45mph by winds at 16,000ft.

Speaking from the London control centre, flight director Ian Ashpole said: "It is so far so good. Everything is working fine.

"We are all very glad to be off. We have been planning for a year and on standby for months, so it is great to be up there.

"They are in the air and everything is functioning, so yes, it seems to be the perfect start."

China's refusal

Mr Elson, 45, from Wells in Somerset, and his co-pilot Mr Prescot, 48, from Stockbridge in Hampshire, were tracking along the Moroccan coast and should be halfway along the country by midnight, he added.

[ image: Well-wishers waved the balloon off]
Well-wishers waved the balloon off
The balloonists face a longer journey than they had originally planned because China has refused to allow them to cross its air space.

Beijing barred British-registered balloon attempts after Virgin tycoon Richard Branson's ICO-Global balloon strayed into restricted air space during his round the world attempt in December.

It was China's refusal to allow Mr Elson and crewmates to cross the country which scuppered his last attempt to circle the globe on board the Swiss Breitling Orbiter balloon last year.

Ian Ashpole of the Balloon Control Centre: "We're absolutely delighted"
Mr Elson could face a head-to-head race with his former crewmates if weather allows Breitling to launch its latest bid at the weekend.

The rival team has managed to secure permission to cross China and weather forecasters will decide on Thursday whether the attempt should go ahead.

In any case, Mr Prescot says he and his teammate are confident that their journey, sponsored by telecommunications firm Cable and Wireless, could still succeed.

[ image: Long journey ahead]
Long journey ahead
"When we thought they were taking off last weekend we were genuinely excited because we thought it would be good to have both bids in the air at the same time," he added.

The British balloonists will spend much of their journey flying low on much slower winds which they hope will take them far enough south to avoid China.

They intend to head north-east, but the pair will begin by travelling in the opposite direction, towards the Canary Islands - again in order to avoid China.

The 200-ft balloon has been adapted to carry three tons of extra fuel which the crew hope could keep them aloft for up to 30 days, giving them time to use the slower low altitude winds.

Long-time balloonists

Both men have been ballooning for more than 20 years.

Watch the balloon lift-off from southern Spain
Mr Elson set the world record for the longest balloon flight on Breitling's attempt to circle the world last year. He and his crew stayed aloft for 10 days before having to abandon their flight when China refused to let them cross its airspace.

Mr Prescot has his own balloon stunt company, which is currently organising manoeuvres above the Millennium Dome in London for a forthcoming James Bond movie.

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