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Balloon adventurer plunges into Pacific

Jan 1, 2003

An ambitious effort by several government aircraft, merchant ships, and a private yacht resulted in the rescue of American adventurer Steve Fossett, whose balloon plunged into the ocean in August off the Australian coast.

Fossett was more than halfway through an around-the-world attempt in his hot-air balloon Solo Spirit when a violent thunderstorm ended his voyage. He was cruising near the jet stream at 29,000 feet, typically above the thunderstorm level, when his balloon was swept downward at a frightening rate.

"I suspect there was some interaction with the tops of the thunderstorm and the jet stream where I was flyingand I started a descent," Fossett said in a conference aboard the New Zealand naval vessel Endeavour after it arrived in Queensland. "I don't know how fast the descent was because my variometer has a maximum rate of 2,500 feet a minute, and it was pegged at 2,500 feet a minute for my entire descent down from 29,000 feet to the surface."

Attempts to regain altitude failed when the balloon ruptured and Fossett began a free fall into the ocean. Miraculously, he was uninjured and was able to immediately activate his 406 EPIRB. Fossett spent one night in his life raft and was initially picked up by the Australian-owned yacht Atlanta, which was diverted by the U.S. Coast Guard's AMVER system.

Solo Spirit was not recovered, according to Fossett, who said he will no longer compete for the first balloon circumnavigation record.