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Thursday, March 11, 1999 Published at 23:59 GMT

Breitling balloon enters critical phase

The Anglo-Swiss balloon crew in the Breitling Orbiter 3 are more than 1,800 miles (3,000km) into the Pacific leg of their round-the-world flight.

Great balloon challenge
According to an expedition statement, Bertrand Piccard and British pilot Brian Jones have travelled some 12,500 miles (20,000km) since they took off from Switzerland 10 days ago.

They are now more than one-third of the way into their journey and at about 1700GMT on Thursday were still in good spirits.

The two pilots are still getting on perfectly well, a team notice says.

'I think we can survive it'

"Bertrand and I are still talking to each other," said Brian Jones. "There has not been a single bad word between us. The only swearwords were directed at minor technical problems.

"The only thing that annoys me is the dehydrated food. But if it's the only probem, I think we can survive it."

The crew were earlier obliged to wait for the right wind to propel them across the Pacific.

After hurtling across China in just 14 hours, they dropped their speed before attempting to cross the ocean where two other recent attempts were forced to ditch.

Team meteorologists have been studying which of two high-speed jet streams the balloon should now take.

If the pair can stay aloft until Saturday morning, Piccard and Jones are expected to have completed half of the marathon journey.

[ image: Piccard and Jones: Anxious about bad Pacific weather]
Piccard and Jones: Anxious about bad Pacific weather
The two sped across China at up to 104 mph (168kph) on Wednesday, before getting over the Pacific Ocean, when their speed dropped to 51 mph (83kph) at 0615 GMT on Thursday - their 11th day in the air.

Crossing the Pacific is expected to take six days.

Pacific is 'second major hurdle'

Britons Andy Elson and Colin Prescot were plucked from the Pacific near Japan last Sunday after poor weather forced them down.

British tycoon Richard Branson's attempt fell into the Pacific off Hawaii on Christmas Day last year, after flying over China without advance permission.

The Breitling control centre said Piccard and Jones, who have described the Pacific crossing as the second critical stage of their trip, were well aware of the Pacific's victims.

It said the two balloonists were so concerned about the Pacific they did not take time to celebrate crossing China - the first major hurdle.

Japan's coastguard said it was following the balloon's progress.

"We are ready to launch a rescue operation in case of emergency in the area we have to cover," said an agency official.

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