Branson balloon bid is defeated by the weather

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The Independent Online

Science Correspondent

After weeks of postponements, Richard Branson has finally decided to put off his record-breaking attempt to fly around the world in a balloon, at least until October.

As predicted in the Independent last Saturday, unseasonal weather has deflated the high-profile project. Scientists advising the team say that unusual weather patterns world-wide could provide evidence of global warming.

The decision was taken in a matter of minutes yesterday during a conference call with the two other members of his team, Per Lindstrand and Rory McCarthy. Advice was taken from Martyn Harris, the consultant meteorologist.

Gathering thunderstorms over India, bad weather on the west coast of the United States and strong winds over Siberia made the planned circumnavigation too risky.

"It would have been lovely to have had the go-ahead," said Mr Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, yesterday. "But we had been moving towards this decision for the past few days. It's disappointing, especially for the ground crew who have put so much work in."

The announcement came just hours after the Virgin team's main competitor, the Dutchman Henk Brink, also said that he would not attempt a circumnavigation before the autumn. The Dutch civil aviation authority had withdrawn his licence to fly, saying flaws in his balloon could make it dangerous.

The Virgin team had intended to start their flight from Morocco, floating the balloon to 40,000 feet and following the 100mph jetstream eastwards in a three-week journey back to Britain.

But uncharacteristic weather in north-east Africa has broken a 30-year record for rainfall over the past eight weeks. The jetstream has also been breaking up in a way not normally seen at this time of year.

"Maybe the weather was just a complete freak, but 99 per cent of scientists think something is afoot with global warming," Mr Branson said. "The weather people have said this is all due to some general change.

"There's been just one day in the past six weeks when the ground conditions were good enough to launch," he added. "The temptation was to keep pushing the launch date back, but if we took off and were flying in March, the risks become unacceptably high."

At high altitudes, storms could destroy the balloon, or else deposit so much water on it that ice would form and drag it downwards.