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French skydiver's plan to set free-fall record thwarted as balloon drifts away

NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. - A massive helium balloon drifted aimlessly away into the sky over the Canadian prairie Tuesday, taking with it the dream of a French skydiver who had hoped to set a new free-fall record.


NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. - A massive helium balloon drifted aimlessly away into the sky over the Canadian prairie Tuesday, taking with it the dream of a French skydiver who had hoped to set a new free-fall record.

Michel Fournier planned to ride in a capsule attached to the balloon and soar into the stratosphere, where he would jump 40,000 metres to Earth.

The scene at an old airforce base in North Battleford, Sask., appeared perfect for a launch Tuesday. The sky was clear and the wind low.

Fournier, 64, was suited up and in the capsule on the tarmac. The balloon, like a translucent white teardrop, slowly inflated as the sun rose behind it.

But just after 5 a.m. local time, the balloon drifted away into the clear sky - without the capsule attached.

Observers were left wondering what happened.

"My guess is they released the envelope on purpose, they disconnected it on purpose," said Jim Whitesell, a veteran balloon pilot for almost 30 years who was on hand for the event.

"My guess is there was a technical issue that could not be overcome. Once the helium is in the balloon, there's no way to recover the helium and the envelope cannot be reused, so this is the safest way to scrub the flight."

Fournier's spokeswoman, Francine Gittins, was not able to immediately provide an explanation.

However, an advisory issued a short time later on Fournier's website said the balloon was found about 40 kilometres from the launch area and technicians are "studying the malfunction." More details were expected at an afternoon news conference.

Fournier appeared disappointed as he left the capsule and walked to the hangar. He was hugged by members of his entourage along the way.

Tuesday's setback was the latest in a string of failures that the 64-year-old former French paratrooper has endured in his dream to set a record.

On Monday he had to scrub a planned launch due to unfavourable wind conditions.

Fournier's two other attempts to break the records, made in 2002 and 2003, ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it became airborne.

He hoped to free fall for 40 kilometres, plummeting back to the Earth in just 15 minutes and screaming through the thin air at speeds reaching 1,500 kilometres an hour.

The descent would break four free-fall records.

Fournier wanted to bring back data that would help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes, and has made the jump his life's work. He sold his retirement villa in France and his antique gun collection to help finance the project.

It's not clear when - or if - another attempt will be made.

The balloon cost about 250,000 euros, or just over C$390,000.

The team had only one in Saskatchewan, according to Gittins. Whitesell said it can't be reused.

"They're so delicate that once it lands it will be damaged beyond repair," he said.

 
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