A drama a day keeps Branson's hot air publicity machine aloft round the world

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ANY OTHER self-publicist would have given up. With a Gulf war raging and the first impeachment of a President since 1868, balloonists looking for headlines might have thought it worth waiting until a slightly quieter week - perhaps the time a UFO kidnaps Prince Harry.

But that would be to underestimate the power of the Richard Branson publicity machine.

Since the first brave assertions that his bid to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon would not be put off by the little matter of cruise missiles on his route, Britain's most popular entrepreneur has managed to provide a drama and, more importantly, a story every day.

Libya was the first to oblige. It is only the first country a global balloonist hits when heading west from Morocco, but somehow permission to fly over it had not been secured until a "dramatic" last-minute message from Branson personally to Colonel Gaddafi.

At take-off, accompanied by 400 hired nomads, and almost as many journalists at the Marrakesh "news centre", a few small holes appeared in the fabric of the balloon, allowing a few small stories to appear.

But barely does the ICO Global Balloon clear North Africa and the stories improve. Reports in the Sunday papers have the whole trip threatened by a sick Branson. He is hit by "dry lung syndrome" - an illness similar to a sore throat except that it affects people in balloons with their own press officers.

But miraculously the ailing millionaire recovers enough by the next day to take the helm of the balloon for the most thrilling part of the journey so far. Like Biggles cloned with Scott of the Antarctic, Branson now steers his balloon between not one but two "no fly zones". Ducking and weaving like only a 272ft balloon can, he avoids Georgia and Iran.

Without a trace of irony Mike Kendrick, the project director, declares on Sunday that there had been "an average of 2.6 crises a day" since the balloon launched: "It has been a difficult flight so far, but we are settling down a bit now."

But no, by yesterday morning the team has discovered it cannot fly over the bit of China it promised to and the Chinese are planning to refuse permission to fly any other way. Being no mean slouches at publicity themselves, Downing Street swings into action to try to secure free passage.

The publicity operation that is taking Branson around the world is led by his Virgin Group publicity guru, Jackie McQuillan. With Will Whitehorn, his long-time adviser, also at his side, Branson and Virgin have some of the most skilled publicity people in the business. For a long time the group eschewed an advertising agency, preferring to generate free column inches and television coverage themselves.

The publicity team is helped by public interest in Branson himself. "People are interested in him," says an insider who once worked in publicity for the Virgin empire. "But they have actually been trying to tone it down recently.

"The balloon doesn't have Virgin written on the side and he's given up wearing wedding dresses and other stupid stunts. There was a time when Richard would show up to the opening of an envelope if he thought he'd get a headline."