Balloonist Setting Records at Age 67

An Indian textile millionaire attempts to "touch the face of God" by flying a hot-air balloon to the edge of space... 70,000 feet. Vijaypat Singhania, now 67, has set previous records in other aircraft. Philip Reeves reports.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Above India today, a hot-air balloon--I'm not talking about Ron Rapoport--a textiles tycoon and maybe even a world record. Now Swede Per Lindstrand was the last to set the record for the highest-ever flight in a hot-air balloon. He went more than 60,000 feet over Texas in 1988. Bombay, or Mumbai, as it's now called, was the launch site of today's balloon effort. NPR's Philip Reeves was there and he sent us this report.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It's before dawn, and most of this Indian city is still slumbering, as another night in the tropics creeps to a close, but not here at the racecourse. A brass band, clad in white, has gathered. So have the TV cameras. There's a sense something important is about to happen.

Unidentified Man #1: So today it is the high-altitude record in hot-air balloon that it looks more certain to be broken by Dr. Vijaypat Singhania, which he is challenging from Mumbai.

REEVES: The man on the loudspeaker system begins to work the crowd, which is slowly gathering. On the field in front of them, a multicolored balloon is being filled with air. When it rises unsteadily to its full height, it's as tall as a 20-story building, one of the biggest balloons ever built. Beneath it is a small sealed aluminum capsule, which will carry Singhania, a textiles magnate and adventurer, into the skies.

Unidentified Man #1: He will remain in it till takeoff and then beyond for his special journey where he is to touch the face of God.

Dr. VIJAYPAY SINGHANIA: This is a very momentous day for me, the most important day in my life, when I'm embarking on a journey that will bring glory to my country.

REEVES: Vijaypat Singhania is 67 years old. He's the millionaire chairman of the clothing company Raymond Ltd. But he's better known as an aviator, the man who, among other feats, flew a microlight aircraft solo from London to Ahmedabad, in western India, in 22 days. Nasty things can happen to aviators at very high altitudes. You can't breathe outside. There's very little oxygen. So it's tough keeping the balloon's burners alight. The temperature's lower than minus 90 centigrade. As he prepares to leave, though, Singhania says he's confident.

Mr. SINGHANIA: God is with me. He will guide me to safety, guide me to achieving this regard that I have dreamt of for many, many years.

(Soundbite of celebration)

Unidentified Man #1: ...(Unintelligible) wishing you all the very best, Dr. Vijaypat Singhania, ...(unintelligible) and bringing glory to India.

REEVES: So there he goes, rising up into the dawn sky, floating over this vast city, a man who's made his millions out of cloth, being carried up towards the heavens by an enormous balloon made out of nylon.

(Soundbite of murmur of voices)

REEVES: On the city streets, clusters of people gather to watch the giant balloon float up over the apartment blocks, over the slums, into the pale morning sky. Some are perplexed; others, thrilled.

Unidentified Man #2: It's just fantastic. It's ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: It's amazing. I think at 67, to be able to do this, is great. That's more exciting than anything else.

REEVES: After two hours and 14 minutes, the balloon's instruments show a reading of 69,852 feet. Singhania's son, Gautam, announces the news.

GOTON: Right up to 69,000 feet, and he's commenced his descent. We have the world record!

(Soundbite of cheers)

REEVES: The figures will have to be formally ratified before Singhania's flight makes the Guinness Book of Records. But neither his team nor anyone else in India today seems in much doubt that he has the record. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Mumbai.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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