Balloon for circling Earth grounded after accident Failure of mooring gave two wild ride

November 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service

The third attempted launching in two years of the round-the-world Earthwinds Hilton Balloon was canceled yesterday, this time because of an accident that could have had serious consequences for two men aboard the craft.

No one was injured, but several vital components of the complicated balloon assembly were damaged. Project officials could not immediately estimate how long it would take to rebuild the system, assuming that its sponsors decided to try again to get the $5 million craft into the air.

Although a handful of balloonists have tried over the years to circumnavigate the Earth, none has ever succeeded, and some have died in the attempt. Earthwinds is by far the most ambitious and expensive such project ever undertaken.

The accident yesterday happened as the upper balloon of the two-balloon Earthwinds was being filled with helium at its pad at Reno Stead Airfield in Nevada. Without warning, the upper balloon, which is 140 feet in diameter, tore loose from its concrete mooring, yanking the crew capsule 20 feet into the air.

The balloon's ascent was checked by cables connecting the crew capsule to the craft's "anchor balloon," filled with compressed air to be used as ballast. But there were fears that the mooring system would give way completely, allowing the craft to go aloft with an inadequate supply of helium -- and two men who were aboard inspecting the balloon. The two were making final inspections and adjustments before the regular crew went aboard.

One of the occupants trapped in the dangling crew capsule, Tim Lachenmeier of Raven Industries Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., is the chief designer and builder of Earthwinds. He immediately recognized the danger that he and Dave Melton, an alternate flight crew member, faced as the giant balloon tugged against its remaining tether.

Mr. Lachenmeier and Mr. Melton quickly activated a safety mechanism that ripped the helium balloon apart, spilling its load of helium and dropping the capsule to the ground. An Earthwinds spokesman said neither Mr. Lachenmeier nor Mr. Melton was hurt.

Richard Abruzzo, who was to have been one of the three crew members, had arrived at the pad about 5 a.m. in preparation for the launching, a few minutes before the accident. The other crew members are the captain of the flight, Larry Newman, and Maj. Gen. Vladimir A. Dzhanibekov of the Russian Air Force.

Both the helium balloon and the heavy anchor balloon, which together cost roughly $250,000, were destroyed in the crash.

Also destroyed, Mr. Abruzzo said, was one of two Dewar thermos tanks containing liquid helium.

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