Balloon-maker fears worst for round-world bid

The British creators of a hi-tech balloon damaged at the start of a record breaking round-the-world attempt were today waiting anxiously to see if it can be repaired.

The British creators of a hi-tech balloon damaged at the start of a record breaking round-the-world attempt were today waiting anxiously to see if it can be repaired.

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett was hoping to make the record books with the first solo balloon flight around the globe.

But Solo Spirit, his 140ft high, 60ft wide British-built balloon, was torn when it blew over while half inflated at a launch site in Kalgoorlie, western Australia.

Fossett, who was about to make his fifth round-the-world attempt, was not on board and no one was injured.

It was the latest disaster for the 57-year-old Chicago investment tycoon whose previous attempts have led to crash landings in a wheat field in southern Russia and in the Coral Sea 500 miles east of Australia.

After seeing his dream elude him yet again Fossett said: ‘‘I’m emotionally disappointed.’’

Before his team began inflating the silver-coloured balloon he had been

confident of success, saying: ‘‘This is the best-prepared balloon flight I’ve been involved in we’ve had no complications and we are looking forward to a flawless launch.’’

Inflating the balloon with a mixture of hot air and helium takes hours and requires very light winds.

Even moderate winds can catch underneath the balloon and tear it during the first stages of inflation.

Solo Spirit was so badly damaged it will now have to be sent back to Britain for repair. It will not be ready in time for a fresh attempt this year, Fossett said.

Don Cameron, owner of Bristol-based Cameron Balloons, which was behind the craft, said he was still waiting to see how permanent the damage was.

He said he feared the worst as high winds during inflation can cause irreparable damage.

‘‘We do not yet know whether it is a show-stopper or whether we can carry on,’’ he said.

‘‘I have not yet had any direct reports but I have a team of more than a dozen staff in Kalgoorlie at the moment.

‘‘If you do get winds during the inflation stage they can do serious damage.

‘‘The balloons are enormous and if winds come across like a big spinning top, they can drag the balloon all over the place. That is why we go to great pains to do weather forecasts.

‘‘We can accept a few small holes but it depends what part is damaged.

‘‘There are no facilities in Australia for gas balloon repairs so we will just have to wait and see.’’

Cameron Balloons has been behind all five of Fossett’s attempts.

Solo Spirit was a miniature version of the Breitling Orbiter which Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard and English balloon instructor Brian Jones flew around the world two years ago.

The balloon is a multi-layered structure made of 6,000 metres of material which can hold 550,000 cubic feet of helium.

The tiny, 5-metre by 2-metre gondola is not enclosed and Fossett would have worn an oxygen mask throughout the flight. It is designed to turn into a life raft if ditched in the ocean.

Fossett was due to soar to an altitude of 30,000ft where temperatures can plunge as low as minus 50C and travel at 130mph in the jet-stream winds, eating military-style rations and sleeping no more than 45 minutes at a time.

The planned flight path would have taken him eastward around the globe in the Southern Hemisphere and almost 90% of his time would be spent over water.

In one of his previous attempts, in 1998 Fossett, set off with tycoon Sir Richard Branson from Morocco, but ditched in Hawaii.

They were beaten to the round-the-world record in March 1999 by the Breitling Orbiter.

Fossett’s success stories have included swimming the English Channel, driving in the Le Mans 24-hour race and competing in the Ironman triathlons.

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