Richard Branson and two fellow crew members awoke in Marrakesh on Tuesday hoping to begin the first nonstop, round-the-world balloon voyage ever made. Instead, they looked out a hotel window and beheld the balloon, freed by a violent gust of wind, ascending crewless into the skies over Morocco.
Disconsolate, Branson began phoning officials of the Moroccan Air Force requesting that its Mirage fighters shoot down the wayward gas bag - preferably in such a way that it might be recovered, patched up and flown again.
“What we’d like,” he said, “is about 100 neat bullet holes through the upper part of the balloon - enough to let it float down, but not to make such a mess that we couldn’t patch it up for another try in a few weeks.”
Later, after the balloon crossed into Algeria, Branson made the same request of the Algerian Air Force. But the balloon remained aloft, and prospects for its recovery looked bleak.
If all attempts to shoot down the balloon fail, Branson said, the crewless balloon might keep going and end up circling the world in the jet stream.
The trouble began when Branson’s team was inflating the 1.1-million-cubic-foot helium cell of his balloon in preparation for takeoff. A powerful gust of wind hit it, snapping 20 steel cables that were mooring the balloon to the ground. The crew capsule, built to accommodate three people, had not yet been attached to the lifting balloon.
The 160-foot-high balloon, suddenly freed of its mooring, shot upward, soon reaching an altitude of nearly 60,000 feet over the Moroccan desert.
“Balloons don’t like being tethered,” Branson said. “They like to fly, and this gust gave ours its freedom. Needless to say, we felt devastated.”
Branson, a billionaire, is chairman of the Virgin group of companies, including Virgin Atlantic Airways, and an inveterate long-distance balloonist. His attempt last year to lead his team on the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight ended in failure when the balloon was forced to land after only a few hours aloft.
His crewmates this year were to have been Per Lindstrand, managing director of Lindstrand Balloons Ltd., which built the balloon, and Rory McCarthy, the chairman of McCarthy Corp., an aerospace company.
Their abortive attempt Tuesday was the first of the 1997-98 season. Wind currents for balloon circumnavigations are generally most favorable in December and January. Anheuser-Busch will award $1 million to the first crew to complete the feat.
Five teams - three from the U.S., one from Switzerland and one, Branson’s, from Britain - are in this year’s race.
The Virgin balloon, with a helium-gas capacity of 1.1 million cubic feet, was the largest and most complex balloon of the field.
The smallest and simplest of the five balloons is the Solo Spirit, a balloon flown solo by Steve Fossett, a commodities broker from Beaver Creek, Colo. Fossett, who holds the world’s balloon-distance record for his 10,361-mile flight last year from St. Louis to Sultanpur, India, believes he has “a better than 50 percent chance” of making it around the world.