American adventurer Steve Fossett has attained one of aviation's few remaining milestones becoming the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world. Mr. Fossett reached his goal shortly before 1400 UTC Tuesday but will fly for several more hours before landing in southern Australia.
To complete his around the world trip, Mr. Fossett had to fly his Spirit of Freedom balloon past 117 degrees east longitude, which was his starting point in Australia on June 18. He passed that mark late at night, local time. Speaking by satellite phone to his mission control team in St. Louis, Mr. Fossett said he was feeling enormous relief. "I have put everything into this," Mr. Fossett said. "All of my effort, all of my skill, I have taken the risk associated with this over this long period of time and finally after six flights, I have succeeded. It is a very satisfying experience."
This was the sixth time Mr. Fossett had tried to fly a balloon around the world. His first attempt in 1996 lasted a little more than a day, taking him from South Dakota in the United States to New Brunswick, Canada. In 1998 he set a solo distance record of nearly 23,000 kilometers, before a thunderstorm off the coast of Australia sent him plunging into the Coral Sea. Last year, Mr. Fossett set a solo duration record, remaining in the air for 12 and a half days before landing in Brazil.
Flight director Joe Ritchie has known Mr. Fossett for more than 30 years, and says the former Chicago stockbroker is a driven man who sets goals not for media coverage, but rather for personal satisfaction. "Steve is that way when he is swimming the English Channel and no one is looking," Mr. Ritchie said of Mr. Fossett. "He has a persistence and a [determination] and a buoyancy and a cheerfulness that I have just never seen in a guy."
Mr. Fossett had hoped to become the first to fly a balloon around the world, but the team of Bertrand Piccard from Switzerland and Brian Jones from England beat him to it in 1999. Mr. Fossett then set his sights on becoming the first to make the trip alone. On Monday, Mr. Fossett received a congratulatory telegram from the European balloonists.
His home for the last two weeks has been a closet-sized capsule hanging beneath the 40-meter-tall balloon. Mr. Fossett has eaten military-style rations, and has had to breathe oxygen at high altitudes, because his capsule is not pressurized.
Mr. Fossett not only holds ballooning records, but also holds world records in sailing and flying airplanes. He is already making preparations to return to the skies. "My next big project is to fly a glider into the stratosphere," he said. "We will make the first attempt on that before the end of July."
Mr. Fossett's new ballooning record will not be official until the Switzerland-based World Air Sports Federation approves it. That could take a few weeks.