Bumpy Landing For Tycoon's Balloon

American balloonist Steve Fossett leans out of his capsule after he landed his balloon land near the outback station of Durham Downs, located some 300 kilometers southeast of the outback town of Birdsville July 4, 2002. REUTERS

Chicago millionaire and adventurer Steve Fossett launched America's Independence Day celebrations early when his Spirit of Freedom balloon ended its record-breaking flight around the world Thursday.

"This was the most important objective in ballooning that had not been accomplished, to do the first solo around the world," said Fossett, who flies back to the U.S. on Friday.

And even before he got a chance to get his earth legs back, Fossett was talking about what he hopes will be his next adventure: flying a glider 60,000 feet into the stratosphere, wearing a space suit.

For that project, he wants NASA as his partner.

Climbing out of his balloon's capsule Thursday, Fossett had a bloodied mouth but was jubilant after a bumpy landing on a remote cattle ranch in Australia's Outback.

"It is the Fourth of July here, but I don't know what's wrong with these Aussies, they don't seem to be very interested in it," Fossett joked shortly after landing. It was still July 3 in America when Fossett landed.

Fossett's balloon touched down safely at dawn on a rock-strewn plain on Durham Station ranch in a desert about 870 miles northwest of Sydney.

The capsule bumped along the ground for about 15 minutes kicking up clouds of dust before it stopped. Fossett clambered out and waved to members of his recovery crew.

He had a bloodied mouth from biting his lip during the rough landing, but was otherwise beaming and unhurt.

"It wasn't what I'd hoped for, but fortunately the Outback is a very big place and I didn't run into any power lines," he said after being whisked in his private jet to a press conference in Sydney.

At least three members of the crew were briefly dragged as they clung to ropes to help Fossett deflate the balloon. None was hurt.

Fossett said he had some problems deflating the balloon, but his ground crew, who had chased him in a helicopter, helped him. He landed the balloon despite windy conditions in the desert.

"I struggled with the speed and also the deflation system failed on the balloon," he said. "So I was skipping along and dragging for the best part of three miles."

"I fulfilled my ambition in ballooning. I might go out and rent a hot-air balloon, fly and have some fun with my friends, but I actually don't plan on making any more major balloon flights," he added.

The American adventurer said his final night in the balloon was one of his toughest.

He flew through turbulence so strong he feared it would burst the balloon, before a fire caused by a loose burner hose forced him to clamber out of his capsule in the freezing Australian night to put it out.

"This was a tough night. I had severe turbulence early in the evening and in fact I had my parachute on in case I had to jump. Then there was the propane fire we discussed, and then the landing," he said.

The 58-year-old Chicago millionaire sailed into the record books Tuesday night as he crossed east of 117 degrees longitude to become the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.

But gusty winds in Australia meant he had to wait until early Thursday to touch down.

Fossett said the fire started immediately after a hose fitting came loose. He was able to put out the fire by shutting off a ball valve joint, which is used to attach the hose to propane fuel tanks and the balloon's burner.

"Any fire in this kind of a situation is extraordinarily dangerous," Fossett said. "It can spread very rapidly and start burning through hoses. You'd be flying a bomb."

The mission control at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri erupted in applause when Fossett called to say he had landed.

Breaking the record, Fossett spent nearly two weeks living on military-like rations, breathing from oxygen cylinders and using a bucket as a toilet.

British tycoon Richard Branson - who also has tried and failed to do what Fossett did - said his achievement was greater than that of Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927 in single-engined monoplane.

"Steve Fossett deserves his place in the record books alongside Lindbergh. It has been an incredible feat," said Branson in a statement.

Fossett said his cramped, closet-sized capsule would be put next to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis plane at the Smithsonian Museum.

The voyage around the world began June 19 in western Australia and took him exactly 13 days, 12 hours, 16 minutes and 13 seconds. By the time he landed, he had spent nearly 15 days aloft.

Fossett was able to sleep only about four hours a day during this trip, usually 45 minutes at a time.

High-altitude winds powered Fossett's Spirit of Freedom balloon along at speeds of up to 200 mph over the Southern Hemisphere. He spent most of his time over water, avoiding any countries that might object to his presence in their air space.

As well as becoming the first to circumnavigate the globe, Fossett also smashed two of his own previous records for the longest duration solo flight and the farthest solo flight.

According to his Web site, he flew for 14 days, 19 hours 57 minutes and 50 seconds. He covered 21,109.95 miles.

Fossett holds other 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.

Asked what he learned about himself during the trip, Fossett replied: "I learned that I get scared just like everyone else. I worry a lot more than I used to."

  • Francie Grace

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