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World Balloonists Land in Egypt

March 21, 1999

GENEVA (AP) _ Less than a day after they sailed into history as the first aviators to fly a hot-air balloon around the world nonstop, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones landed Sunday in Egypt, the balloon’s control center said.

The Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon landed north of Mut, Egypt, 300 miles southwest of Cairo, at 1:00 a.m. EST. The balloonists chose to continue their flight past the finish line in the hope of landing near the pyramids, but unfavorable winds kept them south of their goal.

Mut is in the Dakhla oasis, an ancient Roman outpost that stood on an African trade route at the time of Nero’s rule, from A.D. 54-68.

After 19 days aloft, the huge silver balloon floated over Mauritania past longitude 9 degrees west at 4:54 a.m. EST on Saturday to complete the 26,000-mile-plus, nonstop circumnavigation, a feat that had challenged and eluded dozens of balloonists before them.

The team of balloon builders, meteorologists, friends and family gathered around computer terminals in the Geneva control center burst into cheers and applause as official word arrived that the balloon had landed.

Wearing sweatshirts with the Breitling logo and photos of the balloonists on their backs, the team poured glasses of champagne to toast the end of the 20-day ordeal.

``We had a very good landing,″ said Don Cameron, whose company in Bristol, England, manufactured the history-making balloon.

Piccard, a 41-year-old psychiatrist who comes from a family of pioneers, used self-hypnosis throughout the flight to help cope with the tension. Jones, a 51-year-old balloon instructor and grandfather, relied on his rock-steady nerves.

But for all the dangers and difficulties of long-distance ballooning, the historic 478-hour voyage was relatively uneventful.

The team lifted off from the snowy Swiss Alps on March 1, drifted down to the sands of North Africa, caught a jet stream and headed across the Arabian Desert, over teeming India and on to the lush green of Southeast Asia.

The treacherous Pacific Ocean crossing proved relatively smooth, accomplished in six days. East of Central America, seven miles high, the balloonists were trapped in a lazy spiral and developed temporary breathing problems in the deeply frigid air. But the 180-foot-high balloon soon caught a favorable jet stream that propelled them on their last leg, at 90 mph across the Atlantic.

Since U.S. publisher James Gordon Bennett established a trophy for long-distance ballooning in 1906, sportsmen have striven to fly the farthest, eventually setting their sights on a round-the-world flight. Americans Maxie Anderson and Don Ida made the first attempt in 1981, but flew only 2,676 miles, from Egypt to India.

This was the third attempt sponsored by the Swiss watch and precision instrument manufacturer Breitling, and the company had said it would be the last.

Breitling has refused to say how much money it has pumped into the project, but it is certainly many times more than the $1 million prize offered by brewer Anheuser-Busch for completing the global circuit.

Flight director Alan Noble said the next step probably would be to stage a round-the-world balloon race, assuming funds could be found.

Two of the team’s keenest rivals paid tribute.

``It is a magnificent achievement and two delightful people have achieved it, and we look forward to going to Switzerland to celebrate it with them tomorrow,″ British tycoon Richard Branson told Sky television news.

American millionaire Steve Fossett, who had teamed with Branson in an attempt last December, said Jones and Piccard had won ``one of the greatest competitions in aviation history.″

This was Piccard’s third attempt. Last year he was forced to ditch in Myanmar, also known as Burma, after his balloon was refused permission to cross China. This year the team delayed their departure until they got Beijing’s approval.

Piccard followed the adventuring tradition in his family, which began in 1931 when his physicist grandfather Auguste and his partner became the first men ever to take a balloon into the stratosphere, rising almost 10 miles high. Three years later Auguste’s twin brother, Jean-Felix, went even higher, to 11 miles.

In 1960, Auguste’s son, Jacques, took a super submarine called a ``bathyscaphe″ (after the Greek for ``deep boat″) to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific _ the deepest point on the earth’s surface. Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh went down to nearly seven miles below sea level.

``I’m very, very proud of Bertrand,″ said Jacques Piccard. ``It was his idea, his preparation, his dream. I could only encourage him,″ he said, with tears in his eyes.

``I feel like the happiest brother in the world,″ said Bertrand’s brother Thierry _ who confessed he didn’t like flying.

Update hourly