NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. - A massive helium balloon drifted aimlessly into the sky over the Canadian prairie Tuesday, dashing 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 air force base in North Battleford, Sask., appeared perfect for a launch. The sky was clear and the wind low, Fournier was suited up and 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 suddenly drifted away - without the capsule attached.
"It was like having a hammer over my head," Fournier said through translator and spokeswoman Francine Gittins. "When it doesn't work like that you just cannot think of anything. You just say, 'How come it didn't work?' "
The launch team believes static electricity may be to blame.
Between the capsule and the balloon were parachutes, which would have allowed the pod to float back to Earth after Fournier jumped. The team is investigating the possibility that static electricity may have caused a small shock which then set off one of five charges at the release point between the two.
"It caused it to be detached," said launch manager Dale Sommerfeldt.
"Any one of those (charges) will end the flight basically or separate the mechanism. Any one of those five cutters will end the flight. That was the end of it."
As Fournier, 64, walked back to the hangar he was hugged by members of his entourage.
It was also disappointing for a handful of curious onlookers who had gathered at the airstrip in the pre-dawn hours hoping to watch history be made. There was excitement as the balloon lifted into the air but a gasp from the crowd when it became clear that the balloon wasn't tethered to the capsule.
The balloon was recovered a short time later in a field about 40 kilometres from the launch area, according to Fournier's website.
Nav Canada, the private corporation that owns and operates Canada's civil air navigation service, monitored the launch and said the balloon never posed a threat to aircraft.
"A balloon scheduled for high-altitude launch and para-activity inadvertently separated from gondola prior to launch. Balloon escaped to an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet...and slowly drifted northwest. Balloon deflated and returned to the surface approximately 10 miles northwest of the airport. No operational impact," Nav Canada said in an incident report filed to Transport Canada.
Tuesday's setback was the latest in a string of failures that the 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, who has made the jump his life's work, wanted to bring back data that would help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes.
He sold his retirement villa in France and his antique gun collection to help finance the project.
The entire attempt cost about 600,000 euros or just over C$937,000 with the balloon itself coming in at about 250,000 euros, or about C$390,000.
But the catch is that the balloon can't be reused and Fournier didn't have another one on hand in Saskatchewan.
Still, he isn't giving up.
Fournier flashed a thumbs up as he talked to reporters late Tuesday afternoon. He said there's another window of opportunity for a launch in August and this time he'll bring two balloons.
"The reason that he's not discouraged is because the abortion was taking place because of material," said Gittins as he translated for Fournier. "It was the balloons initially and today was like we mentioned it's the spark that fell. And so we know we can deal with these type of problems, we just need to have a better double system to check everything.
"In life you have to believe in what you do. If you don't believe in what you're doing you might as well just give up."