Russian Balloonist Circumnavigates The Globe, Claims World Record

By Merrit Kennedy NPR

A 65-year-old Russian adventurer has piloted a balloon around the world solo and non-stop in 11 days, claiming a new world record.

If the record is confirmed, Fedor Konyukhov has shaved a full two days off the previous record set by American adventurer Steve Fossett in 2002. The World Air Sports Federation, which makes the determination, congratulated Konukhov and said it was waiting for an official claim to ratify the record.

As we have reported, this was no easy feat: “[He] has had a minuscule amount of sleep in an open gondola hurtling at high speeds through below-freezing air that is too thin to breathe.”

Video from 720 ABC Perth shows the balloon, dubbed Morton, make contact with the Earth in what appears to be a rough landing – then, the balloon dragged and bounced down an open field.

“It’s absolutely fantastic! He’s down, and he’s OK! It’s unbelievable!” fellow aviator Dick Smith said in the ABC video. Konyunkhov emerged from the gondola wearing a helmet and embraced his friends and family.

According to The Associated Press, he then “flew by helicopter back to Northam, where his first shower in 11 days was a priority.”

The final stretch of his journey was extremely challenging, where he got caught in thunderstorms and was “surrounded by nonstop electrical activity,” according to his website. He was also without heating for at least a day and a half – and temperatures dropped to at least minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Konyunkhov was also pushed by a jet stream towards Antarctica, and his team posted his haunting dispatch:

“It is scary to be so down South and away from civilization. This place feels very lonely and remote. No land, no planes, no ships. Just thick layer of cyclonic clouds below me and dark horizon on the east. …This will be the coldest night since the start.”

Konyunkhov said he has completed a long list of adventures, as we have reported:

“He has climbed Everest twice. He has sailed around the world solo multiple times. He has trekked to both poles. He has completed the Iditarod dog race. He has traveled the Great Silk Road by camel. And, he also enjoys painting, has written books and is reportedly a Russian Orthodox priest.”

And, he reportedly passed directly over the field in Western Australia where he initially took off from 11 days before – an extremely difficult feat in a balloon that’s very challenging to steer.

“It’s a very risky undertaking – the fact that he came right back across the Northam airfields where he took off from – no one has ever done that,” Smith told ABC. “It’s so incredibly rare, that it’s about a one in a billion chance.”

The balloon’s landing was seen as one of the riskiest part of the round-the-world feat. Less than a day before the end of his journey, the team said “it is impossible to predict where exactly Fedor will land,” and “all possible scenarios [are] being considered.”

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