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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 06:40 GMT

That sinking feeling

The dream of circumnavigating the Earth in a balloon has inspired enthusiasts from across the world who regard it as one of the last great feats of adventure mankind has yet to achieve.

To other less daring souls, transglobal ballooning may appear an eccentric and dangerous obsession.

Battling not only against the elements, recent attempts have been hampered by equipment failure, political problems and plain bad luck.

The American adventurer

[ image: Bob Fossett on board Solo Spirit]
Bob Fossett on board Solo Spirit
The most recent attempt by American millionaire Bob Fossett failed after 4 days and 11 hours. He hoped he would be airborne for two to three weeks.

Mr Fossett set off from St. Louis, Missouri on 31 December in his hot-air balloon Solo Spirit. It was his third attempt at the record but he finally decided to abort his flight after his balloon developed technical problems.

The remote control, operating one of the balloon's two burners, stopped working and the heater in the balloon's cabin or "gondola" also broke down which left him exposed to low temperatures.

[ image: Solo Spirit's low-tech gondola]
Solo Spirit's low-tech gondola

Mr Fossett is now considering whether the record is possible to achieve without the use of a pressurised gondola or cabin which would allow him to reach a higher altitude.

The American adventurer notched up the world record for the longest solo flight last year when he stayed in the air for six days and travelled 10,377 miles. He was forced to abandon this attempt in India after miscalculating the amount of fuel and sleep he needed.

Mr Fossett repeatedly ran into problems trying to cross Libya. In his previous best attempt he used up too much fuel trying to avoid the country. This year Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, relented and gave permission for the balloonist to enter Libyan airspace. But the announcement came too late. Mr Fossett had already committed himself to a more northerly course.

The English eccentric

[ image: Richard Branson is determined to try again]
Richard Branson is determined to try again
Another well publicised, but failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe was that undertaken by the British millionaire, Richard Branson, in January last year.

Mr Branson and his two man crew, Per Lindstrand and Alex Ritchie, made an emergency landing after travelling just 400 miles of their proposed 26,000 mile journey. Their attempt, which was supposed to take 18 days, was abandoned after the balloon encountered problems over the Saharan Atlas mountain range.

The helium required to keep the balloon aloft cooled too quickly causing the Challenger to descend sharply. Mr Ritchie clambered on to the roof of the capsule at 3,000ft to jettison a fuel tank and saved the craft from crashing into the mountains.

In December 1997 the team was devastated yet again when the balloon broke from its moorings and came down in the Sahara desert. It was further damaged when it was recovered by locals.

This severely hampered Mr Branson's attempt at the record this year, but he plans another flight with a replacement balloon as soon as possible.

[ image: The Global Challenger is nearly 200ft high]
The Global Challenger is nearly 200ft high
Mr Branson is used to setbacks. In 1987 he nearly died in the Irish sea when his balloon ditched after crossing the Atlantic from the United States but three years later he crossed the Pacific breaking all speed and duration records, for hot-air ballooning.

What goes up...

Other less spectacular failures include the forced landing of the Breitling Orbiter, a year ago. The three man crew were forced to descend rapidly after a fuel clip leaked kerosene into their gondola.

This year the crew, Bertrand Piccard, Wim Verstraeten and Andy Elson hope to take off in the next few days from the Swiss village of Chateux d'Oex.

Experienced balloonist Kevin Uliassi, from Chicago, was forced to land the J Renee only an hour after he had taken off from a quarry in Illinois. The helium cell in his balloon ruptured, venting all the helium into the air, but he managed to make a controlled landing.

Balloon in outer space

Another ballooning first about to be attempted is a flight to the edge of space by the balloon named the Dymocks Flyer, piloted by American Bob Martin and Australian John Wallington. This balloon is the only one to be launched from the southern hemisphere, at Alice Springs in Australia.

It will travel 24 miles up and the pilots will attempt to circumnavigate the globe from this distance above the earth.

More like a space capsule, the gondola has life support systems, emergency pressure suits, cameras and scientific data-gathering machines.

During the proposed 20-day flight, the crew will conduct experiments for Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA's Johnson Space Center.

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