Richard Branson owns an airline, of course, and within a matter of months he plans to head into space. But beyond that, the CEO of the Virgin Group has set world records in four modes of transport — boating, ballooning, amphibious vehicle, and kite surfing. Yet in his mind not all his adventures are created equal.
“My favourite mode of transport is hot-air ballooning
,” Branson told The Wall Street Journal recently. “It’s so graceful to be blown by the wind, to go where the wind takes you.”
My favourite mode of transport is hot-air ballooning. It’s so graceful to be blown by the wind, to go where the wind takes you.
And in an interview with Henry Blodget, Branson suggested that people who devote an hour a day to keeping fit may get in an extra two to three hours of very productive work as a result. How can he afford to do this? “By knowing that if my balloon goes down tomorrow,” he replied, “I have a fantastic team of people who will keep Virgin on the road.”
Branson’s love affair with hot-air balloons began in the mid-1980s. With business at Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic booming, Branson began pursuing challenges of a physical and engineering nature. After a successful boating stunt that saw him beat the world record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Branson set his sights on another world record: crossing the Atlantic by hot-air balloon.
Because he knew little about ballooning, Branson trained for three years by practicing skydiving, water survival, and balloon flight. In July 1987, Branson and his copilot, Per Lindstrand, an experienced balloonist, set out from Sugarloaf, Maine, with the goal of reaching western Scotland.
The journey was far from safe. Never mind that Branson had barely flown a hot-air balloon before — at 2.3 million cubic feet (about the size of a 21-story building), the Virgin Atlantic Flyer was the largest balloon ever made. The journey required the balloon to fly in the jet stream, a feat never attempted before. The jet stream carries winds of over 200 mph, and no balloon had ever flown anywhere over 70 mph.
The first part went off mostly without a hitch. They made the 2,900-mile journey in one and half days, but as the duo attempted to land, they hit difficulties. The mechanism that was supposed to eject the capsule from the balloon failed in Ireland and they were forced to continue flying over the Irish Sea. The balloon repeatedly dipped into the sea, making a clean landing look more and more unlikely. When the balloon was 60 feet above the water, Lindstrand advised that they jump. Lindstrand went first, but as soon as he left the capsule, the balloon rocketed to 12,000 feet. Branson didn’t expect that he would come out alive.
Branson didn’t expect he would come out alive. Channeling crisis moments he’d experienced in business, he calmed himself and used the balloon as a parachute.
He debated skydiving out of the capsule, but a near-death experience skydiving during training dissuaded him.
“I climbed back into the capsule and just desperately tried to make sure that I was making the right decision,” Branson said in an interview with TED.
Channeling crisis moments he’d experienced in his businesses, Branson calmed himself and used the balloon as a parachute, guiding it back toward the water and jumping once he was 50 feet above the water. He and Lindstrand were plucked out of the water by the Royal Navy, though Lindstrand reportedly had to swim for two hours in the cold water.
At the end of the journey, Branson swore off ballooning, but the bug had bit him. Within a few years, Branson was attempting something even more daring.
In 1991, Branson made the second of his record-breaking flights, becoming the first to cross the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon. The trip, this time with Lindstrand and American millionaire Steve Fossett, was an unmitigated disaster that Branson was lucky to escape from.
In an interview with Inc., Branson laid out the trip in chilling detail:
Everything went wrong. We lost two-thirds of our fuel. We were only 1,000 miles into the trip, with 7,000 more miles to go. We had to average 180 miles per hour in a balloon [to make it across] …. I was facing almost certain death …. We could have just slumped on the floor and accepted our fate or try to fly the balloon into the core of the jet stream and find the strongest winds you can find, stay awake for three days, and do everything you can to avoid what, on paper, looked like a sad ending.
Miraculously, the team found their way into the jet stream and were shot across to the Canadian Arctic, missing their destination (Los Angeles) by 4,000 miles. The team broke existing records for flight duration and distance, reaching speeds of 245 mph. It was the luckiest of outcomes.
Despite the mess of the Pacific flight, Branson refused to back down. Over the next seven years, he made four attempts at achieving the most difficult (and to that point never done) ballooning feat ever: circumnavigating the world. He failed every time, more than once failing in spectacular style.
One attempt saw Branson, Lindstrand, and Fossett crash-landing in the Sahara and being taken hostage by an Algerian warlord. Branson has described it as “the most sort-of-luxurious kidnapping ever.” Another occasion found the balloonists accidentally crossing the Himalayas over Mount Everest and K2. As they began to come out the other side of the mountains, they encountered the Chinese Air Force, which threatened to shoot them down. It took a few frantic calls from Branson’s secretary to British diplomats to sort that debacle out. Branson’s most successful attempt had his team beating existing distance records, but landing in Hawaii after they fell out of the jet stream.
His numerous adventures, which have raised his profile and the brand recognition of Virgin, have been criticised by many as mere publicity stunts.
His numerous stunts, which have raised his profile and the brand recognition of Virgin, have been criticised by many as publicity stunts.
While he recognises that his ballooning and boating helped make Virgin a global brand, he has rejected the idea that he did anything for any reason other than pure joy and curiosity at the challenge.
“The P.R. experts actually have said that as an airline owner the last thing I should be doing is
heading off in balloons and boats and crashing into the sea …. And they have a point,” Branson told Chris Andersen during an interview with TED in 2007. “When I went over on the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, our airline took a full-page ad which said something like ‘Come on, Richard, there are better ways of crossing the Atlantic.'”
In 1999, Branson gave up his pursuit of a global hot-air balloon flight after he was beaten to the punch by British balloonist Brian Jones and Swiss Bertrand Piccard.
Though Branson has continued his daredevil antics in different ways, these days he devotes more of his immense energy toward pursuing philanthropic and humanitarian efforts, including reform of drug laws, resolution of global conflicts, and environmentalism.
“The ballooning and boating helped put Virgin on the map on a global basis,” Branson told The New Yorker’s Michael Specter in 2007. “I certainly regret none of it. But there are quite a lot of important things going on right now on this planet and I don’t really want to kill myself in a stupid way. It didn’t seem to matter as much when I was young. I had everything to lose and I wasn’t reticent to lose it. But if the question is how would I wish to be remembered, I guess I would have to say not as somebody who spent his life in a balloon.”
But as his recent comment indicates, the allure still stays with him: “It’s so graceful to be blown by the wind, to go where the wind takes you.”
Who Wouldn’t Try It If They Could? Watch My Afternoon Spent Flying High Above New York:
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