Ballooning ambition: 70000 ft - Singhania on Mission Impossible to touch ?God?s face?

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By SATISH JOHN in Mumbai
  • Published 29.03.05

Mumbai, March 29: If God lives at 70,000 feet, Vijaypat Singhania should have no trouble touching his ? or her ? face.

Everest just about manages to top 29,000 and passenger planes do 35,000.

All hot air, you might feel tempted to say about Singhania?s balloon mission. Or, then again, you might not because he is ready to spend crores and risk his life to float up to 70,000 feet above sea level, where no human ? expert corporate climbers included ? has gone before. Astronauts don?t count.

Singhania, 67 and patriarch of the JK Singhania group (Raymond Ltd is the flagship company whose suits ?feel like heaven?), says he is attempting to ?touch the face of God?. But that may really be a bonus. What he?s trying to do is crack the world record set by Per Lindstrand who reached 64,997 feet in Texas on June 6, 1988, in a hot air balloon.

?My greatest fear is whether I?ll reach there. If I reach there, I?ll be able to handle the rest,? says a confident Singhania, wearing a gold medallion and a jacket emblazoned with Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award, won for his past adventure in a micro-light aircraft in which he flew from the UK to India.

On an early mid-November Mumbai morning, he goes off on MI 70K (Mission Impossible ? 70,000) in a balloon being put together by Andy Elson and Colin Prescot, two experts from Flying Picture Company who have themselves flown up to 40,000 feet.

Before that, he hopes to finish Angel in the Cockpit, the book narrating his earlier adventures he?s writing for his granddaughter.

Singhania will sit in a pressurised capsule inside the 80-tonne balloon after it reaches a certain height. The entire mission will take five-and-a-half hours, with the ascent taking three-and-a-half hours. If the capsule springs a leak, the pressure will drop and that means certain death.

?It is impossible to breathe at these low pressures and if one were to be so exposed, human blood will boil and the body would rapidly disintegrate,? Singhania says with a straight face.

The balloon, which is expected to travel a distance of 100 km, will be tracked by helicopters and ground controllers during the entire journey. It?s still to be built, but when fully blown will stand 30 storeys high, powered by 20 burners.

MI 70K will, obviously, cost a pile, even without Tom Cruise ? remember Singhania will be alone. Several crores is the sum being mentioned along with the fact that he?s looking for seven sponsors, but will still go ahead if there aren?t too many.

He?s caught the billionaire?s bug, say observers. Just the other day, Steve Fossett flew around the world, solo and non-stop without refuelling, tasting success in his sixth attempt.

Fossett holds three records for going around the world ? the other two are by balloon and sailboat. After five failures, he made the balloon trip.

Richard Branson, the other billionaire entrepreneur who owns the Virgin group, has attempted balloon rides but Singhania?s friends say he?s not flown solo.

His family, that includes the socially very visible Gautam Singhania who?s got his father?s penchant for adventure sports and looks after the business, had objected to his mission. ?If they hadn?t I would have sensed something wrong,? says Singhania, tongue in cheek.

Why is he doing it at this age? Brian Milton, who is an aviator himself and is co-ordinating the mission for Singhania, cites a saying among mountaineers. ?It?s called ?feeding the rats?.?

After every feat, the mountaineer hears rats squealing for food. And he has to climb again.

Singhania has another explanation: ?I think, I have fire in my gut.?