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‘Round the World Balloon Race Heats Up

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<i> From Associated Press</i>

The pursuit of one of aviation’s last frontiers--flying a hot-air balloon around the world nonstop--is suddenly a head-to-head race.

Two competing balloonists were to begin the exhausting, exhilarating and dangerous 20,000-mile journey Wednesday evening.

In St. Louis, millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett lifted off at 5:05 p.m. from Busch Stadium, his shiny silver balloon shimmering against the white backdrop of the snow-covered ballpark. It will be his fourth attempt to circle the globe.

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A couple of hundred miles to the north, architect Kevin Uliassi prepared to set out from a quarry near Rockford, Ill., about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, in a shoestring attempt at the record books, not to mention a $1-million prize.

“I’m very worried about the competition,” Fossett said just before liftoff. “I’m hoping my prior experience in dealing with problems with the flight will give me the advantage.”

Fossett left nearly an hour earlier than expected, saying the conditions were right. Nearly 300 people clapped and cheered as his balloon rose into the air.

Fossett and Uliassi may have soon have even more competition. Dick Rutan, who helped fly the experimental lightweight plane Voyager around the world nonstop 11 years ago, plans to take off from Albuquerque, N.M., as soon as the weather is right.

Other adventurers want to make the round-the-world quest as well. British millionaire Richard Branson planned to lift off earlier this month from Morocco, but the balloon tore away from its moorings and sailed away without him over North Africa. Branson vows to try again. Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard is preparing for a launch from the Swiss Alps. No date has been set.

The timing of the launches is no coincidence.

Fossett spokeswoman Sue Killenberg said the jet-stream conditions for long-range flying are best in December and January.

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Hot-air balloons cannot be steered with any precision. They have to rely on high-altitude winds.

Anheuser-Busch is sponsoring the Budweiser Cup, offering $500,000 to the first person or team to circle the globe in a balloon, along with $500,000 to the charity of the winner’s choice. The deadline is Dec. 31, 1999.

Both of the Midwestern balloonists are from Chicago. If it’s a race, Fossett, 53, would have to be considered the favorite.

His best effort was in January, when his balloon stayed aloft six days and traveled 10,377 miles, about twice as far as anyone had previously flown in 213 years of ballooning, before running out of fuel. He landed safely in a mustard field in remote India.

On this attempt, Fossett will fly a bigger balloon with more fuel. The journey, if successful, should take 15 to 20 days.

Uliassi, 34, is a veteran hot-air balloonist making his first round-the-world attempt. His longest flight so far has been to Indiana.

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