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Friday, March 12, 1999 Published at 23:51 GMT

Balloonists near halfway

The Breitling Orbiter 3 crew is approaching the halfway mark in its attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Great balloon challenge
British pilot Brian Jones and his Swiss colleague Bertrand Piccard were expected to reach the halfway point - 171 degrees East - at about 0300GMT on Saturday and some 29,000ft above the Pacific Ocean.

On Friday evening the balloon was travelling at around 45mph. The team hopes to pick up a fast subtropical jet stream over Hawaii by Tuesday. This will take the balloon across Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

[ image: Piccard and Jones: En route for Hawaii]
Piccard and Jones: En route for Hawaii
Breitling's control centre said it had chosen this route because the weather conditions seemed more stable and it avoided North America's busy air traffic corridors.

The alternative Polar jet stream would have led the balloon over California and the American East Coast.

On Friday, the two pilots were able to open their sealed hatch for the first time in more than a week. They used the opportunity to air the cabin and carry out some housekeeping chores.

The pair, who had been flying at about 26,000ft, brought their balloon down to 6,000ft before opening the hatch.

The pilots have travelled more than 12,500 miles since lifting off from the Swiss Alps on 1 March. They aim to land somewhere in North Africa around 20 March, according to flight director Alan Noble.

Safely over China

The team has already completed the most difficult part of the voyage by diverting around large parts of China - which has banned balloon attempts from crossing much of its airspace.

[ image: Alan Noble: Balloonists aim to land in North Africa]
Alan Noble: Balloonists aim to land in North Africa
The balloon entered Chinese airspace on Tuesday and kept within the 26th parallel, following strict rules set down by the Chinese Government.

The team came within 25 miles of straying into forbidden territory and was warned three times by Chinese air traffic control during the 14-hour flight over the country.

The pilots fared better than rival Richard Branson, whose ICO Global Challenger balloon flew into restricted airspace on his attempt at the world record last year.

'Hats off'

Breitling's control centre said the pilots had received a congratulatory e-mail from the Virgin tycoon.

"Hats off to you for an incredibly bold flight. It really does look like you could do it this time," Mr Branson said.

The Breitling crew also received a fax from rival American balloonist Steve Fossett, wishing them a "safe flight from Mexico".

The Swiss-registered balloon has 11 days of propane fuel left to allow the crew to complete the attempt at one of the world's last remaining aeronautical challenges.

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