Branson buoyant again after China lets his balloon make a break for the border


Mr Richard Branson's round-the-world balloon voyage cleared one of its few remaining political hurdles yesterday as China reluctantly agreed to allow it to continue through its airspace.

At 10 a.m. yesterday Chinese air-traffic control ordered the ICO Global Challenger balloon to land in Lhasa, Tibet, based on safety concerns about heavy air traffic in central and eastern China. But four hours later Beijing relented, on the condition the balloon take the quickest route out of China.

The balloon, which took off from Morocco on Friday, had been forced to alter its original flight path to avoid US and British bombing raids on Iraq.

The project director, Mr Mike Kendrick, said the balloon would have landed this morning if negotiations had failed.

The project team told the Chinese it was impossible to land because of the treacherous terrain and weather conditions. They said the balloon would be weighed down by hundreds of pounds of ice as it fell through the freezing clouds above the Himalayas.

Following the granting of permission by the Chinese, Mr Kendrick said the chances of the expedition proving successful had changed from 10 per cent to "probably 51-49" in a few hours. He said Mr Branson was delighted, and his immediate reaction was "Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant".

In a statement later Mr Branson said: "Thank you to the Chinese government. We are embarrassed to have entered the airspace without permission and relieved that they understand our position."

"Maybe they can start enjoying this flight now," Mr Kendrick said. Although Mr Branson and his co-pilots, Mr Steve Fossett and Mr Per Lindstrand, hope the balloon will pick up a Pacific jet stream which would propel them out of China, a spokesman said the balloon may not leave the country until later today. It was yesterday travelling at about 50 m.p.h.

The Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, the former prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, and the Foreign Office were all enlisted to try and persuade Beijing to allow the balloon a passage through China. The British ambassador, Mr Anthony Galsworthy, sent a message from Mr Blair to the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr Zhu Rongji.

Mr Kendrick said: "The Chinese say that in the end it was down to the British ambassador, but I think Ted Heath and Tony Blair and all the others have also played a part."

A Foreign Office spokesman, anxious to show it had not given Mr Branson special favours, said: "The record attempt is a privately sponsored attempt. Our concern is for the safety of the crew. We wish it well as we would wish any expedition well."

A spokesman at the Chinese embassy in London said: "China has spared no effort in making sure that everybody is safe."

China had allowed the balloon to travel through a limited portion of its airspace, south of 26 degrees latitude and north of 43 degrees latitude. But the balloon missed the southern space by about three degrees, or 250 miles.

On Saturday night the balloon travelled through a narrow corridor which took it seven miles north of Iran, 10 miles from Russia and 60 miles from Iraq, three of the four countries to completely refuse the balloon permission to enter their airspace.

At one point yesterday the balloon was just 10 miles from Bhutan. But a spokesman said such precision was impossible above the Himalayas, where the balloon could not vary its altitude without risking a crash.

Of all the countries the balloon may now pass through on its way east, only North Korea has refused entry. Mr Kendrick said the crew hoped to be over the US, when they will pick up another $1 million from sponsors ICO, by Christmas Day.