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Press Conference For Aborted Around-The-World Balloon Flight

Aired August 17, 2001 - 09:35   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We're taking you now live to St. Louis, Missouri. They're getting the press conference underway a little early there. They're talking about the reasons why Steve Fossett decided to abort his attempt to balloon around the world this morning.

JUDITH JASPER LEIGHT, MISSION MEDIA DIRECTOR: In working with Steve. Next, we'll have Tim Cole, who's the project manager who has joined us from Australia. And Tim is the man who built the capsule, and coordinated the launch, and has been helping manage the mission from here.

As you have all heard, the decision was made during the night to recommend to pilot, Steve Fossett, that he land rather than commit to the Atlantic. This decision was reached after a long conference with all the team members, and it was recommended to Steve sometime during the night.

At that point, the process of bringing him down began. And at 7:0309 central daylight time we believe that he landed. We have recently received, about 8:10 this morning central daylight time, a sighting by an Associated Press television reporter in a chase plane that the balloon is in fact on the ground, resting upright. The balloon has -- the capsule is upright, and the balloon is deflated. And there is a crowd around the balloon. So we believe, in fact, that Steve is down and the balloon is safe.

So with that amount of detail, Bob Rice is going to tell us a little bit about the weather patterns and the decision to bring him down in terms of the weather. Joe is going to talk to us a little bit how the team decided this, what happened, how the decision was recommended and what Steve responded. And Tim Cole is going to talk about the process of bringing him down, what Steve had to say, how the landing went and what the advice was.

So, first, we'll move to Mark.

MARK WRIGHTON, CHANCELLOR, WASHINGTON UNIV.: Thank you, Judy. Good morning from Washington University in St. Louis. We are really grateful for learning of Steve Fossett's safety. Of course, we're disappointed that the mission wasn't the complete success that we all hoped for.

However, I would note that Steve is the first person to circumnavigate the world in a balloon, unfortunately he didn't do it nonstop. But he did set several records on this important mission. He's now crossed five great oceans and has the endurance record.

Washington University has been really proud to be a part of the team, supporting the effort. Our student, faculty, and staff have been very much involved, and we've had a great opportunity to work with Steve Fossett's team here at mission control.

Again, we're just grateful that Steve is safe, and we appreciate the opportunity to have been involved.

LEIGHT: Thank you.

Bob. there was one point last night where I thought we had threaded the needle. Can you talk a little bit about that, please?

BOB RICE, CHIEF METEOROLOGIST: Well, yes. In a sense we had. When we came in across the boarder into Argentina there were storms, thunderstorms actually developing out over -- well, eastern Argentina up over the -- all the way to the coast, actually. They were moving. They were going to dissipate and so forth.

We came in as the cells were dissipating. Went by one and then went into a decaying cell that had snow, and a little turbulence and other various good things. Came out of that. And this morning, we were kind of looking at redevelopment around the balloon. Some redevelopment out in front of it.

It had just -- it was a very long flight. As you all know, it was quite slow. We were -- probably averaged no more than about 40 knots. And this sort of a plan you really should be averaging at least 50, 60 knots. But in any event, by the time we were making a decision, it just didn't seem quite right.

And I will let Joe carry on from there.

JIM MITCHELL, MISSION SPOKESMAN: Yes. Well these kinds of decisions certainly are not an exact science. It seems to me like one of the more complex exercises in gaming theory, handicapping the odds of a bunch of interdependent variables.

But there comes a point when even by around-the-world balloonists standards, risks just seem too high. And I think as Steve looked out at three solid days, hanging in a balloon, flying through a front over the Atlantic, he just decided that point had come.

And I think if an around-the-world balloonist decides the risks are too high, then us normal mortals would surely agree. And I certainly think Peggy Fossett would agree. So those of us that are friends of Steve's are very disappointed. But I'll tell you, we are also very relieved, especially after what Steve went through last night.

LEIGHT: Tim, you want to talk to a little bit about bringing him down: the process, what he had to say, how it went?

COLE: When we made the decision that the flight didn't appear that it could be successful, our concerns were how we would get Steve down, first off in an area that would be most favorable for recovery.

We had looked at the surface conditions as far as the weather and the winds and found what direction they would be coming out of, so as he did descend, he would be able to give us an idea of the direction he is going to be going and also what kinds of speeds he would be encountering as he came in close to the surface.

We were in contact with Steve, basically, when he started about 10,000 feet. And we were just slowly coaching him down throughout the entire flight. Steve had the balloon under very, very good control and had -- once he had cleared the cloud layer that was above -- or below him at the time, he was able to, you know, see clearly that the area that he was in was a large pasture area, possibly cattle or some of the livestock, that there were large fields, that there were roads.

And so he was in a habituated area. He was continuing to bring the balloon down on the, what they call a controlled descent, until he had gotten to about 500 feet. And then he thought it was best that at that time, he started to, what they call disengage the autopilot and control the rate of descent on his own. Steve and I then talked about the procedure that we would fall through so far as which fuel tanks would be turned on and which tanks would be turned off.

And we deployed the trail ropes that are used to help slow the descent down and also direct him in the -- which side of the balloon comes in first. So this was all followed through. And Steve got down to about 200 feet, and then he had the rate of descent down to about 150 feet a minute, which is really a nice rate of descent. We talked about at what time -- that when his trail ropes made contact with the Earth's surface, that at that time, he would get to ready to, what they call pull the rip panel.

This is a panel in the top of the balloon that's open so that it can deflate the gas upon landing. So we were all in contact about that. And I could hear him. He said that he had stabilized and he wasn't descending anymore. And so we advised him to open up the valve in the top to let some of the gas out. And the balloon continued its descent.

That was my last verbal contact with him and -- because then I could tell that he had put some hot air back into it, possibly to slow the rate of descent down. I heard that the contact was made to the Earth's surface. And then we lost radio contact.

The antenna actually mounts on a boom that's about 10 feet off to the side. And this is positioned basically to give the antenna good -- good position and so that, you know, it will pick up good satellite configuration for a signal.

Then, a little while later, we had gotten a call from the Associated Press. And they were asking for the coordinates for where the last position was. And so I gave them to them. And they immediately spotted Steve's -- spotted the balloon. The balloon had landed; the balloon had landed in a field; it was deflated -- and that there were several people around the capsule. And then at that time, we lost contact with the airplane that was in -- doing the spotting. LEIGHT: OK. And you were also in contact with local authorities.

COLE: Yes. All the local authorities for the police and fire departments through the local airport had been notified as to Steve's position. And we'd been advised that they had gone out towards -- to his location for whatever assistance he required.

LEIGHT: All right. We'll move to questions in the room. And I will repeat the question for those on the bridge.

QUESTION: How much of the decision was Steve's to abort? And where was his head in this? Did you have to talk him down or was he OK with the decision?

LEIGHT: The question is: How was Steve in his process? Where was his head? Did you have to talk him into it or did he do it on his own?

COLE: Well, Steve is a very logical person. He likes to know all the details of why we felt that it's necessary. And so we gave our input. He asked that we discuss it some more -- and just considering different variables as to: Could we possibly change the approach on how we would cross the Atlantic?

And, again, we discussed it and just saw that the wind patterns weren't there for the flight to be as successful as we wanted it to be.

QUESTION: Did he want to keep going?

COLE: No. No, I am not saying that. I am just saying that he wanted our input as to why we felt this way. And once he had heard our input, he happened to agree with us.

QUESTION: Can you go over the recovery procedures: who is picking him up, when that is going to start?

LEIGHT: Could you go over the recovery procedures: who is going to pick him up, when is that going to start?

COLE: Well, actually, we do not know that process. We know we contacted the local authorities because, of course, they're the ones that have jurisdiction over the procedures. We were in contact with the airport itself. And so they are familiar with these types of incidents, whether it's with a fixed-ring or a rotor-ring-type aircraft.

So, bottom line is they are the ones that are best suited to these types of operations. And they always, of course, involve the different authorities, as far as the government and their air agencies.

LEIGHT: We have both Portuguese and Spanish translators in the room that are helping us work with local authorities.

QUESTION: What's his mood right about now?

LEIGHT: What's his mood now?

COLE: Well, of course, not having spoken to him -- but I can only assume that, first off, there is a certain amount of disappointment as to making a flight of this nature.

I mean, it was incredibly slow. And that in itself, that's a draining factor. The high sides are -- is that we didn't have to have an air search -- a sea rescue or a search. So there's always a certain amount of relief in that.

QUESTION: Joe, this is not the first time we have been in this room. Why doesn't this guy give up? Is this one of those things that is just impossible? And I am sure they told that to Lindbergh. Is this just one of those things that is impossible?

LEIGHT: Is this just one of the things that is impossible?

QUESTION: Or why doesn't the guy give up?

LEIGHT: Why does Steve not give up?


RITCHIE: Well, Steve's the most quietly determined guy, when he sets out to do something, that I have ever met. And I think it's like the kid in him that he didn't grow out of, which I think is one of the charming thing about the guy.

I have seen kids do this, where they just keep at it. I have got a couple that do it when I wish they wouldn't. And I think that explains it. I do not think that he does this because -- because he gets a lot of attention, because most of the things he's set out to do got no attention whatever. But it's just a characteristic that he's got that I admire.

QUESTION: I have a question for Bob or Joe. You had spoken about the weather pattern that you wanted to chart out for him just a couple of weeks ago. Is there ever a time during the year when he would be able to make the trek at all?

LEIGHT: Is there ever a time during the year when he would be able to make the trek?

RICE: Well, weather is a -- it's always changing. It's never -- you never see a pattern exactly the same. One pattern comes; another goes.

But can you find a perfect pattern? Yes, you probably can. Whether or not you know it before you actually launch is another story. Some of them just turn out to be. This particular one that we took, there are various reasons why we did. We had -- ground conditions were such that we were delayed in launching, which made quite a difference. Oddly enough, six to seven hours does make a difference. But in any event, so this one turned out to be not so good. But tomorrow, you get a better one.

QUESTION: And I have a follow-up question. You also spoke about the oxygen. How much did that come into play with the decision to abort the mission?

LEIGHT: The question is: How much did the oxygen situation contribute to the decision?

RITCHIE: Actually, as it turned out, I don't think the oxygen was a factor because the flight at the altitude required would have been low enough to save enough oxygen. So at end of the day, it turned out that the oxygen wasn't a limiting factor.

QUESTION: We are going hang our hat on the weather situation as the main reason why.

LEIGHT: So the weather situation was the main reason why?

RITCHIE: By far.

RICE: There were other factors.

QUESTION: Can you get into those?

LEIGHT: There were other factors. Could you please tell us more?

RICE: No, it's -- any time that you have been flying for 12 days solo and so forth, there comes a time when you feel that you're perhaps not -- it's not right to force him into doing something else extraordinary, and another prolonged period.

Certainly the weather was a major factor, but yes, there were others. But it just seemed like the combination of events just forced it.

QUESTION: What was the size of this weather pattern? Was it possible at all for him to have flown around this, above, below? Would that have been possible at all?

LEIGHT: What of the size of the weather pattern and could we have gotten over it, around it, under it?

RICE: Yes, one of the things that was a problem, for instance, we had a large block out in the middle of the Atlantic, in which the flow patterns split --

HARRIS: And that is the part of the big problem that Steve Fossett ran into. We will step away from this press conference just a moment.

As you heard there, the word was that the storms that he evaded didn't necessarily cause the problem, the problem was that the balloon was going too slow. They were only moving about 40 knots, and he said really to get through what they had to go through next they needed to be moving at about 50 to 60.

And then with the wind patterns not shaping up to be very favorable. The prospect of going across the Atlantic and spending three days avoiding storms there, that was just too daunting a mission. So they decided to go ahead and scrap it.



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