The ballooning exploits of Richard Branson

Richard Branson is known for his entrepreneurial activities, but also for his adventurous side, which has resulted in him taking up a number of ballooning challenges over the years.

In 1987, at the age of 36, Branson crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon. He made the trip in the company of a Swede, Per Lindstrand, who was the balloon’s designer. The ‘Virgin Atlantic Flyer’ was the first ever hot air balloon to successfully complete the Atlantic crossing, during which it achieved speeds of more than 130mph. The balloon was also the biggest that had ever flown, with a total volume of 2.3m cubic feet.

An unexpected ending

There was a dramatic end to the journey when Branson and Lindstrand had no option but to leap from their balloon into the sea after low cloud forced them to descend short of their Scottish landing site. This occurred after their balloon had briefly touched the ground in Northern Ireland before gaining altitude again, only to sink down to the waves, dragging the pair through the water at 100mph.

Both adventurers managed to survive their leap, although Branson, who was the last one left on board, believed that his co-pilot had not made it to safety. In fact, Lindstrand spent over two hours in the sea before being rescued by the Royal Navy. He and Branson were then reunited in the helicopter that flew them to a nearby hospital.

At the time, there was uncertainty regarding whether the pair had been successful in their record attempt. As the balloon had briefly touched the ground in Northern Ireland the team believed their flight had succeeded, but the International Aeronautical Federation required landings to take place on either land or fresh water, with an intact craft. In the end, the record was approved.

Success on the Pacific

In 1991, Branson and Lindstrand successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean in a hot air balloon, setting a distance record of 6,700 miles. It took them 48 hours altogether to fly from Japan to Canada and the pair broke the previous hot air balloon distance record of 3,072 miles, set during their Atlantic crossing in 1987.

During their balloon flight over the Pacific, Branson and Lindstrand set both speed and distance records, achieving an average speed of around 150mph and a maximum of 245mph. As in 1987, the balloon flight was not without incident as, at one point, a third of the craft’s propane fuel was accidentally dumped overboard and the two pilots considered abandoning before deciding it was better to continue and try to reach Canada than risk landing in the sea far from any help.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Branson made several unsuccessful attempts to fly all the way round the world by balloon. In 1998, accompanied again by Lindstrand and a new member of the ballooning team, Steve Fossett, he flew from Morocco all the way to Hawaii in his final attempt, this time in a combined helium/hot air balloon. Although the flight ultimately failed to circumnavigate the globe, a Swiss balloon team achieved the feat the following year.

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