Branson's balloonists brought to earth but no deflated by failure


THE British tycoon, Mr Richard Branson, said yesterday he was glad to be alive after his attempt to circle the globe by balloon ended with a descent into the Algerian desert hours after take off.

The night time plunge - twice as fast as an express lift - was only slowed when stand in copilot, Mr Alex Ritchie, climbed on to the roof of the capsule and released two ballast tanks to lighten the load.

Mr Ritchie, wearing a parachute and strapped to the side of the fuselage, carried out this feat in darkness. Mr Branson also tried to slow the fall by hurling out bottles of food and fuel.

The balloon managed to clear a mountain range and landed in the Algerian desert at 7.29 a.m. (Irish time), ending the round the world voyage less than 24 hours after it started.

"Alex is the hero," Mr Branson told his London control centre. "He saved our lives."

Mr Ritchie was a last minute replacement as co pilot with Mr Per Lindstrand, after Cork born Mr Rory McCarthy pulled out for health reasons.

Asked if he felt disappointed, Mr Branson said from Algeria: "It's nice to be alive, nice to be sitting here in this incredible desert scenery, and that's really what matters.

He said the dramatic landing was "pretty hairy" - more like a space voyage than a balloon flight. "It feels like we've landed on the moon," he joked from the desert.

The balloon, the Virgin Global Challenger, came down near Bechar, 45 miles inside Algeria's border with Morocco and about 490 miles from the take off point in Morocco. An Algerian military helicopter was quickly on the scene.

The balloon's ascent was powered by helium but the pilots had burners to supplement the lift with hot air. At night, helium cools, causing the balloon to drop officials said the pilots may not have been able to arrest the descent with the burners.

Virgin officials cast doubt on whether Mr Branson would have enough time to prepare for a second attempt this year. He was in competition with a US balloonist, Mr Steve Fosset, to become the first man to fly round the world in a balloon. Mr Fosset is planning a similar attempt from St Louis, Missouri.

Also, a Belgian Swiss duo, Mr Wim Verstraeten and Mr Bertrand Piccard, have been preparing a similar round the world flight in Switzerland and are expected to take off on Monday.

The team, confirming its intention of setting off early next week, claimed yesterday that it was unlikely to suffer the same problem as Virgin Global Challenger.

"We're working in the same way [as Branson] but on top of our balloon we attached a tent to keep the valves free of ice" Mr Verstraeten said in the Swiss town of Chateau d'Oeux where he and his team mate have been preparing their Breitlinger Orbiter balloon for the past three months.

He said Mr Branson's misha was not linked to weather conditions. "It's just a coincidence stupid bad luck. It could be that everything went wrong because of a 50 franc sensor," he said.

He added that a piece of the tiny layer of ice which covered the top of Mr Branson's balloon at night may have dropped into the gas valve controlling the release of helium. "They probably tried to open the valve electronically and a piece of ice probably got in, preventing it from closing perfectly, so the balloon started descending and lost a lot of helium."

Mr Verstraeten said Mr Branson's balloon had lifted off too fast on Tuesday. "He wanted to rise at three metres per second but we think he went at six metres per second, much too fast," he said.