Balloonist in home stretch of trip; finish expected today

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Steve Fossett is oh-so-close to finally flying his balloon around the world all by himself.

After years of spectacular crash landings, the Chicago investment tycoon was expected to reach western Australia within a day and claim the record of being the first solo balloonist to circumnavigate the globe.

Fossett, 58, has failed in five previous attempts to knock down one of aviation's last barriers and he was still hundred of miles away from the finish line Monday.

Fossett will finish when he crosses 117 degrees longitude, expected sometime early Wednesday local time (late Tuesday morning), but won't land until several hours later in southwest Australia.

Fossett's mission control expected ideal landing conditions, with forecasts of clear skies and no ground-level winds -- variables that should allow Fossett to gently touch down and keep the balloon upright back on earth.

Fossett launched his Spirit of Freedom balloon from the western Australian town of Northam on June 18. His flight for more than 18,000 miles was smooth, without any of the problems that doomed past attempts.

Fossett has spent that last two weeks in a capsule seven feet long, 5 1/2 feet wide and 5 1/2 feet tall, living on military-like rations and using oxygen cylinders.

On Sunday, Fossett broke his own 4-year-old record for distance traveled by a solo balloonist.

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