Millionaire balloonist skirts disaster

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- American adventurer Steve Fossett continued pressing his around-the-world balloon quest Monday, a day after a frozen burner and stormy weather nearly foiled his trek.

Closing in on South America, Fossett and his Bud Light Spirit of Freedom balloon as of noon Monday CDT were cruising at nearly 66 mph at 26,600 feet above the south Pacific. Fossett has traveled more than 6,900 miles since launching last Tuesday from western Australia.

Later Monday, Fossett was to swing sharply northward, hoping to drift as high as possible to avoid getting sucked out of the jet stream into a low-pressure zone off Chile's coast. That also could minimize the risk of thunderstorms, Fossett's mission control at St. Louis' Washington University said.

Fossett's sixth bid to become the first solo balloonist to circle the globe had been uneventful until last weekend, when stormy weather and a frozen fuel valve threatened to cut short his quest.

About 7:30 p.m. Sunday CDT, a burner valve froze open, producing a continuous flame that caused too much heat in the balloon. If not quickly fixed, the balloon could have ascended beyond its limits and tore, sending Fossett plummeting into the sea.

So the Chicago investment tycoon scrambled outside of the capsule and defrosted the valve with chemical heating pouches used to heat his meals.

Hours earlier, Fossett had descended below 1,000 feet to duck turbulent weather. But periodic squalls packing severe downdrafts took the balloon as low as 400 feet, perilously close to the water.

Fossett, 58, used all of his balloon's three gas burners to ascend and counter the downdrafts, keeping him out the sea well east of New Zealand.

"The margin for error was razor thin," Fossett told his flight center.

At one point, Fossett reported that he looked to simply make it safely to South America, and that completing his quest appeared impossible.

"I'm anxious to get some sleep," Fossett said.

Fossett, who hopes to complete the flight in 15 days, holds world records in ballooning, sailing and flying airplanes. He also swam the English Channel in 1985, placed 47th in the Iditarod dog sled race in 1992 and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996.

Fossett's five earlier solo attempts ended with crash-landings in spots such as the Coral Sea and a Brazillian cattle ranch. But last summer's cattle ranch landing still came after 12 days in flight, making it the longest-ever solo balloon flight.

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