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Balloonist to attempt global flight again

 
Published Sept. 28, 1997|Updated Oct. 2, 2005

A Chicago businessman with an insatiable hunger for adventure said Thursday he will use St. Louis as both launch site and base of operations as he attempts once again to do what no one has ever done before _ fly a balloon non-stop around the world.

"I'm looking forward to a very exciting time," Steve Fossett said in front of the arched doorway of Brookings Hall, the symbolic entrance to the Washington University campus, where he graduated from business school three decades ago.

"Many have thought the great explorations of the world already have been done," he said. "This one has not."

Fossett said the Solo Spirit II will launch from Busch Stadium between Dec. 1 and the end of January, the period when the winds are most conducive to carrying the combination helium and hot-air balloon around the world.

The journey will be directed from a room in Brookings Hall. It will be there that Fossett's flight team will communicate with the pilot and chart his course. University officials said they will use student volunteers in a variety of jobs during the flight, which is expected to last between 15 and 18 days.

University Chancellor Mark Wrighton predicted Fossett's journey will "lift the human spirit."

"We will be with you as you circle the world," Wrighton told Fossett.

Raymond Arvidson, chairman of earth and planetary sciences at the university and science coordinator for the mission, said the trip "is an excellent opportunity to capture a view of the Earth in 1997-98 and reinforce the fact that we have just one Earth and we need to be concerned about environmental sustainability."

This will mark the second time in a year that Fossett has tried to circle the globe in a balloon.

On Jan. 13, Fossett's Solo Spirit lifted off from a snow-covered Busch Stadium field in what would become a six-day, 10,000-mile odyssey that ultimately would end in a mustard field in India. Fossett endured freezing temperatures, dangerous storms and the threat of being shot down as he flew through the airspace of hostile countries.

The trip ended prematurely when Fossett's flight team, which was operating out of downtown Chicago, calculated that he did not have enough fuel remaining to get across the Pacific Ocean, much less complete his round-the-world trip. Despite that, it was the longest balloon flight in history _ both in terms of time aloft and distance covered.

Burners on the balloon regulate the temperature of the helium, which controls the lift. The burner heats the helium, which expands and helps the balloon rise. When the burner is off, the helium contracts and the balloon descends.

This time, Fossett said, he will fly a balloon that is 28-percent larger than the Solo Spirit. He said the larger balloon will enable him to carry 50 percent more fuel, a mixture of ethane and propane. He said he will fly in the same unpressurized capsule that he used in January.

While he acknowledged that the capsule is "getting a little bit beat up," he said the capsule and the equipment have been tested and worked well.

He noted that two other ballooning teams _ from Switzerland and England _ already have announced they will make round-the-world attempts in December or January. Both of those teams are flying more sophisticated equipment and have multi-member crews.

Still, Fossett likes his chances. He talked of the "greater simplicity" of his equipment.

"And it's tested," he said. "That is my greatest advantage."

He also noted that he had no corporate sponsors and that the balloon would be flying only the flags of the National Geographic Society and the New York-based Explorers Club, an organization for outdoorsmen and adventurers.

He acknowledged that the journey probably will involve some tense moments if the balloon flies over countries unfriendly to the United States.

He said many of them simply will not give permission for a flyover until the balloon nears their borders.

He is hoping the winds are right for the balloon to take a more northerly route than the route taken in January.

The preferred route, he said, would take him over England and Scandinavian countries, past Moscow, over Japan and the Pacific Ocean, across British Columbia and into the United States by way of Montana and the Dakotas.