American millionaire Steve Fossett became the first solo balloonist to circle the globe nonstop, sailing into the record books high above the clouds off Australia's southern coast on Tuesday.
"It's an enormous relief and satisfaction," the 58-year-old adventurer said from the balloon, his remarks piped back to a news conference held by jubilant members of his U.S. control center in St. Louis, Missouri.
"It's been a long trip and I'm really glad to get across," he added. "Finally after six flights I have succeeded and it is a very satisfying experience."
Fossett, who had failed to make a circumnavigation in five previous and often danger-filled tries, snared one of manned flight's last earthly records at about 9:40 a.m. EDT on Tuesday. He crossed the finish line when he passed 117 degrees east longitude, the same line where he began his trip 13½ days earlier from far western Australia.
He is expected to land about 6:30 p.m. EDT today, most likely on southern Australia's Nullarbor Plain, a vast and virtually treeless desert in Western Australia state.
A recovery team was planning to set up a base in the tiny settlement of Forrest, 370 miles east of Kalgoorlie, a gold mining town in Western Australia. He began the voyage from Northam, a small farming town 310 miles west of Kalgoorlie.
Weather conditions in Australia were ideal for the landing with low temperatures and virtually no wind.
Congratulations poured in from fellow balloon adventurers.
"His achievement will go down in history books as big as Charles Lindbergh's achievement across the Atlantic," Richard Branson told CBS News Reporter Steve Holt. "He's just the most remarkable individual I've ever met and had the pleasure of flying with myself."
Branson spoke with Fossett during the flight "when he'd just been through a thunderstorm and was quite shaken up because if you hit a thunderstorm at the top, it's not so bad. If you hit a thunderstorm at the bottom, you can get sucked in and it can rip the balloon to pieces."
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the first hot-air balloonists to circle the globe three years ago, saluted Fossett's "perseverance and courage" in accomplishing the non-stop, solo feat in his sixth attempt.
"We warmly congratulate Steve Fossett for his magnificent round-the-world tour via the southern hemisphere," Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist, and Jones, a former British Royal Air Force pilot, said in a joint statement issued in Switzerland.
"We are very happy that it is our friend Steve who finally succeeded, because the flight is much more than a second round-the-world tour: it is the proof that dreams are realized through perseverance and courage," they added.
Fossett doesn't plan to call it quits. He says his next possible adventure will be to fly a glider into the stratosphere to above 60,000 feet. He didn't discuss the details of that mission.
When he achieved the record after sailing nearly 19,500 miles he was under a canopy of stars, he reported, with clouds covering the ocean below.
"You can't do very much celebrating," an exhausted Fossett said, citing the always dangerous landing of his giant balloon that lay ahead.
"I do have a couple of bottles of Bud Light (brewed by the balloon's sponsor), but there's no one to drink it with," he said to laughter from colleagues in St. Louis.
On Monday, the Colorado-based former Chicago markets trader set a top speed of 186 mph over the Indian Ocean.
When Fossett lands, his hi-tech balloon is expected to disintegrate, with only the gondola surviving the descent.
"The actual balloon does not normally survive the landing. The capsule will survive and is to be taken to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., to be hung next to Charles Lindbergh's 'Spirit of Saint Louis', which he flew across the Atlantic," said a mission control spokesman.