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Rivals Send Balloonists Congrats

March 20, 1999

LONDON (AP) _ Richard Branson is not afraid to give credit where credit is due.

As balloonists Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard neared their ambition of becoming the first to circumnavigate the world nonstop, their most famous rival congratulated them today.

``I am slightly biased, but I think it is an incredible achievement _ the last great aviation record left,″ said Branson, the British billionaire who made four unsuccessful attempts to set the record himself.

``It has taken years of preparation with various teams,″ he added.

The Virgin empire tycoon, who was the first to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by balloon, said he already had sent the team a note saying it was ``quite magnificent what you’ve achieved.″

But that didn’t stop him from joking that he would use pilots from his Virgin Atlantic airline to try to thwart the pair, who on Friday were floating toward northwest Africa.

``We are, at the moment, strapping on guns on the Virgin 747s, scrambling the fleet to Africa,″ he said. ``We hope to intercept the balloon before it reaches its end.″

Steve Fossett, who made five unsuccessful around-the-world attempts, including one with Branson, called the quest to circle the Earth in a balloon ``one of the greatest competitions in aviation history.″

``This competition involved 20 attempts since 1981, and Bertrand Piccard was finally successful in not only having the right technology, but putting together all of the elements of a successful flight,″ Fossett said.

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