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Russian Adventurer Seeks To Break Record In Round-The-World Balloon Flight

A 65-year-old Russian adventurer is on the eighth day of his solo attempt to circumnavigate the globe nonstop in a balloon.

Fedor Konyukhov aims to set a world record by completing his journey around the Southern Hemisphere in less than 13 days, beating the previous record set by American adventurer Steve Fossett in 2002. Konyukhov took off from Northam in Western Australia last Tuesday, and his son Oscar told The Associated Press that he's on pace to land back in Australia on Sunday.

Konyukhov has a long list of feats of endurance and bravery under his belt, according to the biography on his website. 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.

Fedor Konyukhov, a 65-year-old Russian adventurer, prepares for liftoff in a balloon named Morton.
Paul Kane / Getty Images
Fedor Konyukhov, a 65-year-old Russian adventurer, prepares for liftoff in a balloon named Morton.

But he's facing challenges. His team reported Wednesday that the temperatures in the balloon's gondola fell to minus 45 degrees Celsius (that's minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit), blanketing much of the vessel in frost. Because of the altitude, Konyukhov must breathe through an oxygen mask. But "It was so cold that the oxygen masks have been freezing solid as breath is exhaled so Fedor had taken to swapping between warming one in his jacket and breathing through the other," the team said.

"Mentally, he's very strong," Oscar, who leads the Australia-based support team, told The Associated Press. "It's a boost to morale to be more than halfway and he's looking forward to seeing the Australian coast."

The hot air balloon's name is Morton, and Morton is the culmination of two years of design and preparation, according to the team. Prior to departure, they discussed the challenging conditions Konyukhov would face as a pilot:

"During the flight Fedor Konyukhov will only be able to sleep in short periods of 30-45 minutes, in total just 4 hours in a 24 hour period. Periodically, he will have to; send data to mission control, eat, keep warm complete navigation tasks, check fuel calculations, read instruments and change fuel tanks as they are used as well as clear ice from equipment. Fedor's work will be performed often at altitudes of 5000 to 10,000 metres, at a speed of 100-200 km/hr and at temperatures of around negative 40 degrees Celsius."

This type of balloon is very difficult to steer. As Konyukhov's friend and fellow adventurer Dick Smith told Australia's ABC, "I've flown across Australia and across the Tasman sea in a similar Roziere balloon, and you're virtually completely out of control."

In short: For the past eight days, Konyukhov 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. And he has four more days to go.

Fedor Konyukhov lifts off from the Northam Aero Club.
Paul Kane / Getty Images
Fedor Konyukhov lifts off from the Northam Aero Club.

"[E]very minute something might happen," his son told ABC. "He is just flying into the unknown with custom-made equipment ... it's all experimental."

You can follow Konyukhov's progress on this interactive map through his website. As you can see, he has traveled more than halfway around the world and is currently close to the coast of South Africa.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.