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Balloonist Says Solar Material Helped Him Break Altitude Record

June 6, 1988

LAREDO, Texas (AP) _ A British balloonist set a world altitude record Monday after stubborn sandbags forced him to crawl outside his pressurized gondola at 22,000 feet and wield a pocket knife to lighten his load.

Per Lindstrand, 39, floated his butane- and solar-powered ″Stratoquest″ hot-air balloon to an unofficial record 59,700 feet, well beyond the 55,137- foot record set in 1980, project coordinator Peter Mason said.

After bad weather postponed liftoff for several days, the 12-story-high craft took off into a clear sky shortly after dawn. Then trouble developed: two 100-kilogram sandbags that were supposed to release automatically did not.

″There was no way I could make the altitude record while carrying this sand,″ Lindstrand said. ″ So I had to climb out of the capsule and cut them.″

The first bag was no problem because it was near the hatch, but the second was on the other side of the craft beyond the reach of his oxygen line.

″I had to take a deep breath, run around, cut it off and run back again, all the while clinging on to the outside of the capsule,″ he said. ″That got a bit hairy.″

″It was a fairly average day, I think,″ Lindstrand said jokingly. ″We had a particular problem with the sandbags, but nothing my trusty Swiss Army knife couldn’t handle.″

Coming down turned out to be just as difficult because solar panels used to heat the air buoying the craft worked almost too well.

″The balloon was more solar than I thought,″ Lindstrand said. ″The sun powered the balloon, which I had expected. But it was almost too much. I had a problem getting down. There was a vent at the top at the balloon that I had to open and hold open during the descent.″

Lindstrand had hoped the $200,000 flight would break the 60,000-feet barrier, considered to be technically impossible because of a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere needed for the balloon’s burners. But the two sandbags cost him that goal by draining fuel and forcing him to begin descending just before 60,000 feet.

After the 3 1/2 -hour flight, Lindstrand landed in a field about 60 miles from his launch site on the Callaghan Ranch north of Laredo.

″I managed to land in probably the only grassy field between Mexico and Houston,″ Lindstrand joked. ″We were very fortunate. We landed without any damage to the balloon or the capsule.″

While the ballooning feat is a personal achievement for Lindstrand, it also represents a step for science, he said.

″We showed what we set out to,″ he said, ″that a half a ton of payload with no input except the sun can be transported.

″... We used the same type of film that is used in solar collectors on the outside of the balloon to propel it.″

Lindstrand, who heads the British firm of Thunder & Colt Balloons, had his team build the 600,000-cubic-feet balloon of a special ICI Films’ polyester material, Melinex. ICI Films sponsored the Stratoquest project.

Last year, Lindstrand and British millionaire Richard Branson set another record when they became the first ever to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. The two men hold balloon records for speed, 100 mph; duration, 31 hours and 41 minutes, and distance, 3,075 miles, for that flight.

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