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Balloon baron pricks record
- Singhania touches edge of space, eyes Guinness entry

Mumbai, Nov. 26: A few years from now, when he watches his soon-to-be-born grandchild play with balloons, Vijaypat Singhania will have some fascinating stories to tell the kid.

The 67-year-old chairman emeritus of the Raymond Group today made the highest flight ever by anybody in a hot-air balloon, the feat awaiting ratification by the Guinness World Records.

The amateur aviator climbed to about 69,852 feet, touching the edge of space as he broke the 17-year-old record of 64,997 feet (19,811 metres) by Britain-based Swede Per Lindstrand.

The first confirmation came from son Gautam. “We have the world record at 69,000 feet. We’re bringing him down now,” he announced.

Singhania had set a world record for ultra-light aviation in 1988 when he flew 9,655 km (6,000 miles) from Britain to India in 23 days. In 1994, he won a 34,000-km round-the-world air race in 24 days.

“I have a burning desire to prove that something thought impossible can be done. And can help put this country on the world aviation map,” he said.

Today, he had aimed for 70,000 feet (21,336 metres) in a flight touted as “Mission Impossible (MI70K)”, but decided against it towards the end of the four-hour journey.

“At 69,800-plus feet, he hit an air pocket and the ascent became slow. We decided not to push ahead as he had broken the record anyway,” Colin Prescot, who designed the balloon with fellow British pilot Andy Elson, told reporters.

“I was only about a 100 feet short,” Singhania said. “I encountered problems with the burners. I could have stayed back, burnt a little fuel, maybe for an hour and tried again.

“Above 45,000 feet it is dangerous territory. If something goes wrong, you have nobody to blame. So better get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.”

The Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) says an aviator must achieve at least a three per cent improvement on an existing record to qualify for recognition as a new record, which the Indian has done.

A 500-strong crowd that had gathered at least an hour before the 6.45 am liftoff cheered the adventurer as his 40-tonne, 160-foot-tall, multi-coloured balloon rose slowly against the backdrop of dawn at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi race course. He travelled about 185 km and landed at a village near Nashik.

Just before stepping inside the pressurised aluminium capsule attached to the balloon, the textile baron had said, “I’m very excited but very nervous and confident I’ll make it.” Gautam said he, too, was ‘‘nervous”.

‘‘If they were not nervous, I would be very worried!” joked his father.

A sealed altimeter, a GPS (global positioning system) unit and a barograph were installed inside the capsule to determine the balloon’s height. On landing, the seals were broken and the instruments submitted to Guinness for verification.

The balloon’s envelope was made using a special light nylon and was powered by 18 burners, fuelled by kerosene and propane.

A helicopter followed the balloon all through to monitor wind direction for the landing.

A control room manned by a flight director, trajectory director, air-traffic controller and other officials from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research constantly monitored the mission.

The event was broadcast live on Doordarshan using cameras on board the helicopter, inside the balloon’s cabin and on the ground.

Singhania, who has four decades of flying experience spanning 5,000 hours, had taken extensive lessons in balloon-flying at Mondovi in Italy earlier this year. He was to undertake the adventure on November 19, but had to put it off because of bad weather.

His feat comes 18 years after British tycoon Richard Branson set a speed record in a hot-air balloon.

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