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Balloon leaves Fournier behind, soars into sky on its own

_done_0527runawayballoon_18.jpg

Gasp of surprise goes up from crowd as French adventurer's $200,000 balloon breaks free while being filled with helium for trip to upper atmosphere for bid at skydiving record

PETER CHENEY

Globe and Mail Update

May 27, 2008 at 8:31 AM EDT

French adventurer Michel Fournier's quest to set a world skydiving record may have come to an end after his $200,000 helium balloon escaped and floated into space without him attached on Tuesday.

Although the launch appeared to be going perfectly, the surprise disconnection of the giant balloon took the assembled crowd by surprise. There was an audible gasp as the clear plastic balloon rose into the sky after an hour of filling from a helium truck, but without Mr. Fournier's capsule beneath it.

Although Mr. Fournier's team did not release specifics immediately after the balloon floated away, it appears that the disconnection was a deliberate abort over a technical problem.

Moments before the balloon floated away, a warning horn sounded in the launch area. When the balloon rose into the sky, spectators initially thought it was part of the launch process, but quickly realized that Mr. Fournier's capsule was not attached.

Within minutes, the balloon was thousands of feet above the airport, glinting in the morning sun. One observer called it a "giant silver squid."

North Battleford Mayor Julian Sadlowski said he was saddened and disappointed by Mr. Fournier's failure. "I thought this was the day that we would see history made here in North Battleford. It's sad to see it end like this."

Mr. Fournier's spokeswoman, Francine Gittins, said Mr. Fournier would probably attempt to mount yet another effort after reviewing what went wrong with Tuesday morning's launch.

"He is an incredibly determined man. He will not want to quit. If anyone can come back from this, it's Michel."

Whether that will be possible remains to be seen. The cost of Mr. Fournier's record bid is estimated at more than $12-million to date, and his two-week foray to North Battleford this spring cost more than $650,000.

After failures in 2002 and 2003, Mr. Fournier returned with a Russian-made balloon that cost an estimated $200,000. Mr. Fournier's record efforts have been funded entirely through his own savings and the contributions of sponsors. Although it is too early to tell whether this third failure will put a stop to Mr. Fournier's fund-raising, team members acknowledged that it would obviously make it more difficult.

"Obviously this is not a good thing for us," Ms. Gittins said. "If we want to go on, we'll have to work harder than ever."

Mr. Fournier's website said later that the runaway balloon had been found about 40 kilometres from the airport and that technicians are "studying the malfunction."

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