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Wednesday, 3 March, 1999, 14:41 GMT
The balloon race is on
balloon map
Unlike the C&W balloon, the Breitling Orbiter has Chinese clearance
A race around the globe is under way following the launch of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon.

Its pilots are hoping to overtake the record-breaking Cable and Wireless balloon, which has had a 10-day headstart.

Great balloon challenge
The Breitling craft took off on Monday at 0905 local time (0805 GMT) from the Alpine village of Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland. The balloon is currently above Morocco heading south towards Mauritania and northern Mali.

The rival C&W team have now reached Thailand, and are about to cross Laos and Vietnam before heading out across the Pacific.

The Breitling crew hope to dramatically increase speed to 190mph by picking up a high-altitude jet-stream over Mauritania.

They are due to fly over Turkey, India, China and the Pacific - a 16,000-mile course which the organisers say the balloon can do in 21 days.

Chinese permission confirmed

Despite the time deficit, the Breitling pilots - Swiss Bertrand Piccard and Briton Brian Jones - have the advantage of being allowed to enter China.

Breitling crew Picard and Jones
Bertrand Piccard (left) and Brian Jones
Beijing banned British balloons from its airspace after Richard Branson's ICO Global Challenger strayed into a forbidden zone in December, but the Breitling bid is Swiss-registered.

The Chinese granted a late extension on Monday when it was realised that the permission was valid only until the end of February.

The Breitling voyage is the third circumnavigation attempt to get airborne this winter. Last December, Richard Branson's bid crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean.

In January, an American high altitude attempt, Team Re/Max, failed to take off.

Although registered in Switzerland, the Breitling balloon was built in Bristol.

It stands more than 55m high and holds the equivalent of seven Olympic swimming pools full of helium and hot air in its canopy.

Mr Piccard and Mr Jones said that they had "no idea" about whether they stood any chance of catching up with the Cable and Wireless balloon.

Cold Cable and Wireless

The C&W pilots, Colin Prescot and Andy Elson are currently trying to avoid Chinese airspace in the most difficult phase of their journey.

They spent Monday - their 13th day in the air - drifting across the Bay of Bengal at speeds ranging between 15mph and 30mph.

The C&W balloon launched successfully from Spain
The C&W balloon now has heater problems
But the pilots have given up efforts to repair a faulty heater, which has left them having to don arctic survival gear at high altitudes.

"It is not ideal, but it is not mission-threatening," said a Cable and Wireless spokeswoman.

Organisers said the team were too absorbed by their mission to worry about their rivals.

Mr Elson flew on the last Breitling voyage before transferring to the current Cable and Wireless bid, which has already travelled more than 7,000 miles.

On Sunday the flight broke the world endurance record after staying airborne without refuelling for nine days, 17 hours and 55 minutes.

The balloon has enough fuel to remain airborne for another fortnight, having completed one third of its trip.

See also:

06 Dec 98 | Programmes
25 Feb 99 | Great balloon challenge
27 Feb 99 | Great balloon challenge
28 Feb 99 | Programmes
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