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Russian breaks round-the-world hot air balloon record

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: Russian adventurer Fedor Konyukhov has broken the record for the fastest round-the-world flight in a hot air balloon, his crew said Saturday, surviving a gruelling endurance test of storms and freezing temperatures.

Flight coordinator John Wallington said Konyukhov, who took off from Western Australia on July 12, had successfully flown the route by Saturday afternoon. He landed before dark.

His journey, taking just over 11 days, is faster than the record set by the late American adventurer Steve Fossett who in 2002 became the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon in a feat, which took 13 days.

“The record is broken – no question,” Wallington told AFP, adding that Konyukhov had flown his helium and hot air balloon almost exactly, over his starting point.

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“He flew over the same field which he took off from.”

The flight route has taken Konyukhov, who is in his 60s, from Australia to above New Zealand, across the Pacific Ocean, South America, the Cape of Good Hope and the Southern Ocean.

During the journey of more than 34,820 kilometres (21,636 miles) he has been confined to the lightweight gondola which is hung with more than 30 steel cylinders of propane gas to fuel the burners.

Wallington said the last 24 hours of the trip had been uneventful for the experienced Russian expeditioner but joked that “the previous 10 days have been awful”.

On Konyukhov’s website, which has tracked his progress, he has spoken of the strong polar jet stream which pushed him towards Antarctica as he approached Australia, saying it was “scary to be so down south and away from civilisation”.

“This place feels very lonely and remote. No land, no planes, no ships,” he said at the time.

Although equipped with sophisticated instruments, conditions inside the carbon fibre gondola were tough, with Konyukhov using an oxygen mask at higher altitudes.

He was also dealing with extremely cold temperatures – which at times reached minus 35 degrees Celsius and saw a layer of ice several centimetres thick form on the gondola.

Conditions could also be dangerous, with the balloonist flying blind as he approached the coast of South America as night fell. He encountered snow and ice crystals while he flew through clouds and severe turbulence caused his propane cylinders to smash into each other.

A nice thing to do

Konyukhov’s son Oscar, among those cheering his father’s achievement, said the chances of completing a round-the-world solo flight on the first attempt were “one chance of a billion”.

“As a son, I’m very proud of my father. It’s just difficult to comprehend what he just achieved,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Despite concerns that the landing would be a “very dangerous operation” the Russian landed near the small wheat belt town of Bonnie Rock, some 350 kilometres northeast of Perth, at about 4:30 pm, the broadcaster reported.

Konyukhov, who has previously conquered both the north and south poles solo, and sailed a 27-metre-long (89 feet) boat round the world alone was not motivated by breaking the record, Wallington said.

“He just thought it would be a really nice thing to do,” he said of the round-the-world journey.

“Breaking a record is a nice bonus, but the objective was just to fly around the world.”

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