Branson def lated

Terrifying fall to earth leaves Virgin boss in two minds on further round-the-world balloon attempt

Ballooning experts were last night puzzling over telemetry data to try to understand why the Virgin Challenger balloon plummeted earthwards in the early hours of Tuesday morning - almost killing Richard Branson and his two crewmates.

The team were unhurt yesterday after being forced to abandon their attempt to fly around the world, less than 24 hours after taking off. They ditched in the Algerian desert following a terrifying half-hour when Alex Ritchie, 51, had to climb out on top of the capsule into the freezing night air and drop two of the six 1-tonne canisters of propane attached to the capsule to halt the descent.

Mr Branson said last night that the daredevil exploit had been necessary because explosive bolts designed to release the canisters in emergency had not been enabled at take-off.

Speculation surrounded the possibility that the uncontrolled fall might have been started by a jammed helium release valve, a tear in the canopy fabric, or that the crew released too much helium to control their rapid rise after takeoff.

Don Cameron, a balloonist who is preparing to make his own attempt to cross the world by balloon, said: "It could be that everything went wrong because of a 50-franc [pounds 6] sensor."

He suggested that a piece of the thin layer of ice covering the top of the balloon in the freezing night air 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," he said.

Mike Kendrick, the Virgin project director, said it was clear that the system - involving releasing helium to control ascent or lose height, and dumping ballast to control descent - "did not work". But he added, "We'll look at the telemetry on Thursday morning. It wasn't a tear, and the balloon was in dry air - the possibility of icing is really remote. We're not bothering with explanations at the moment. We weren't asking them why they landed, we wanted to know where."

A potentially fatal crash was only averted by the daring of Mr Ritchie, the oldest member of the crew, who was a last-minute replacement for an ill colleague. As the balloon descended at 400ft per minute - twice as fast as an express lift - he unhitched the propane canisters, critically reducing the weight.

Eventually they landed safely in the Algerian desert near the town of Bechar at 7.29am - just 400 miles from their starting point in Marrakesh, Morocco, after flying for 20 hours and 10 minutes. It was a dismal end to the high hopes that Mr Branson had held with Per Lindstrand, the balloon's designer and a co-pilot, of circling the world non-stop in three weeks, using the jetstream at 30,000ft to blow them along. But they managed to land the capsule undamaged.

"We've had quite a lot of adventure that we would rather not have had," Mr Branson said, and added: "I'm sure that if Alex had not been on board, Per or myself would not have come back."

He admitted to having been mortally frightened as the capsule fell out of control. "I suddenly thought, What the f.... am I doing up here again? I remember saying to myself, 'If I ever get through this I am never going to do it again.'"

Without Mr Branson's backing, and perhaps participation, it is unlikely that the Challenger project will get off the ground again. His Virgin companies have been the main sponsors of the pounds 3m attempt, putting in about half of the sponsorship. Another attempt would in any case be unlikely this year as a new canopy able to hold the 1.1 million cubic feet of helium would have to be built.

However, Mr Lindstrand, asked if the trip and its equipment were too ambitious, replied "Probably"; on whether he would go on any further attempts, he answered "definitely". But Mr Branson, the guest of the British ambassador to Algeria last night, said, "I think I will need to talk to my family ... I did ring my son Sam just after landing and he asked, 'Will you try again, Dad?' I assumed he was suggesting that I shouldn't, but when I asked him what he thought he said, 'Of course you should.'

"I have to admit I was rather hoping to hear the reverse from him. But there are other elements of my family I will have to talk to about it."

Suggested Topics
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried