Unscheduled Landing

  • Share
  • Read Later
LONDON: Richard Branson is down--and lucky to be alive. Just 19 hours into the flamboyant British tycoon's second attempt to make the first nonstop, round-the-world balloon flight, the 174-foot "Global Challenger" experienced technical problems and the three-man crew was forced to land in the Algerian wilderness. "At one stage I was standing by the door chucking out everything movable - oil canisters, food, anything - to halt the descent," Branson said. "I thought, "What am I doing up here?" The acknowledged hero of the safe landing was engineer Alex Ritchie, himself a last-minute replacement for a sick crewman, who climbed outside the capsule to jettison a one-ton fuel tank, slowing the rapid fall. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Alex. He saved our lives," said Branson. At the launch Tuesday a North African military air base near Marrakech, Morocco, Branson had expressed higher hopes. "We are about to embark on a great adventure," Branson said shortly before setting off to claim "the last great aviation record left on earth." But the planned 18-day flight of the helium hot balloon was ended by "a ballast-versus-helium problem," said project manager Mike Kendrick. In February, the 46-year-old Virgin emperor had postponed the same voyage because of unsuitable weather; this glitch may well cost Branson his shot at the record. A two-man Swiss team and American millionaire Steve Fossett--on a solo mission--are both expected to set out within the week.