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Winds needed to lift Solo Spirit

WASHINGTON - When Steve Fossett logged on to e-mail yesterday in his Solo Spirit balloon - 21,000 feet above the South Pacific Ocean - he found one of those messages headed “Congratulations” that make people wonder what they did.

“For reaching the quarterway mark,” the Solo Spirit Mission Control team at Washington University in St. Louis, said. “Keep on truckin'!”

He had traveled a quarter of the way around the world in his fifth attempt to fill one of the last blank pages in aviation's record book. Mr. Fossett, 57, wants to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a balloon.

“It's been a fine tour so far,” Mr. Fossett replied. “I'm relieved that things are working as well as they are. Now I just want to fly the next quarter faster, although the goal is worth whatever time it takes.”

Speed and time may become problems as Mr. Fossett continues his eastward trek on a flight expected to total 18,000 miles.

Earth's circumference at the equator is 25,000 miles. However, the official definition of an around-the-world flight, set by an international aviation agency, recognizes flights within a band north and south of the equator. That cuts the total distance.

Solo Spirit has averaged 45 mph since leaving a dusty mining town in western Australia on Sunday.

Mission planners originally expected that the huge helium-hot air balloon would average 50 mph. They hoped it would catch jet-stream winds and zoom along at speeds up to 130 miles per hour. But its highest speeds, registered early in the day, were 70 mph.

Solo Spirit has no engine, propeller, or rudder. The prevailing winds are its only source of forward motion. Mr. Fossett “steers” by ascending or descending into wind currents blowing in the desired direction. At mission control, meteorologist Bob Rice monitors wind and weather in Solo Spirit's path, and relays instructions to Mr. Fossett.

The ill winds have slowed Solo Spirit's progress and could become a factor in the mission's success.

Days count because Solo Spirit took off with enough propane fuel for a 22-day flight.

Mr. Rice said Solo Spirit will pass just south of Easter Island over the weekend and then continue over open ocean toward central Chile.

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