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Balloon Team Crosses Into Mexico

March 17, 1999

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ A Swiss-English balloon team crossed into Mexican airspace late Tuesday, expecting to retain enough fuel to cross the Atlantic and become the first to circle the world nonstop.

Earlier Tuesday the Breitling Orbiter 3 set a record for the longest distance flown in a balloon, passing the milestone of 14,236 miles over the Pacific, said Brian Smith, a flight controller at the Geneva control center.

Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Brian Jones of England lifted off from the Swiss Alps on March 1. They crossed the Mexican coast near Acapulco at 9 p.m. EST, and expected to pass over the country in a mere five hours, Smith said.

The support crew in Geneva popped open a bottle of champagne as the balloon approached the Mexican coast.

``We’re pleased that the Pacific is now behind them,″ Smith said. ``It was a long crossing _ six days over the Pacific Ocean. It must be a big psychological barrier for the pilots to be over dry land.″

The balloon was flying at 34,000 feet at a speed of 87 miles an hour, Smith said. It was to fly south of Mexico City and on toward the south side of Cuba.

The team earlier Tuesday had received permission from Mexico and Cuba to fly through their airspace, meteorologist Pierre Eckert said.

Smith said weather conditions were good for the team. ``The skies are starting to clear and they might see some of the lights of Mexico City as they fly by. That would be lovely.″

If the team makes it to North Africa, possibly by Saturday afternoon, it will have traveled more than 26,000 miles and Piccard and Jones will break a record that has eluded the world’s top balloonists for years.

``If I get there, I really won’t be able to believe it,″ Piccard told Swiss Television.

The Breitling Orbiter’s path near the equator had caused the team communications problems _ the huge silver balloon blocked the capsule’s antennas from connecting with the satellite nearly straight overhead.

The team had to rely on a ground station in California to relay radio messages to their meteorologists in Geneva.

Jones and Piccard, who had drifted as slow as 30 mph sometimes, finally reached a jet stream southeast of Hawaii for the trip to Mexico.

Smith said the balloon likely would be able to maintain its speed as it crossed Mexico, and was on track to fly south of a busy air-traffic corridor.

The control center said the speed has helped conserve propane, which fuels the burners in the lower, hot-air section of the balloon. The burners are needed to keep the balloon afloat.

The control center said there may be enough fuel left for the balloon to go farther into North Africa than the 9 degrees west longitude that constitutes the ``finish line.″ Jones would like to land by the pyramids of Egypt.

``It’s looking quite possible at the moment,″ Smith said. ``The fuel consumption has been slightly better than forecast. We feel we might just fly on a little bit further towards Egypt.″

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