Branson deflates round-the-world ambition until autumn

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The Independent Online

Technology Correspondent

Richard Branson's desire to make the first round-the-world trip by balloon looks almost sure to be deflated until autumn - punctured by the wrong kind of jetstream.

Unseasonal weather above 30,000ft means that the money spent by the British entrepreneur last month is almost sure to go to waste. Next Wednesday, Mr Branson and his co-pilots, Per Lindstrand and Rory McCarthy, will decide whether to mothball their huge balloon, now sitting in an air hangar in Marrakesh, Morocco, until October.

Mr Branson's original plans were to set off in the balloon from England last December, and rise to 30,000ft, where the jetstream - an eastward- flowing wind blowing at 100 mph - would carry the balloon around the globe.

However, bad weather forced the team to look south to Morocco - which had been suffering a five-year drought - and the project was shifted there early in January.

Morocco at once received its heaviest rainfall since 1917, while the jetstream has shown a pattern more typical of spring than winter, with winds blowing north rather than the more usual direct easterly.

"Meteorologists don't normally complain about the weather," said Martin Harris, a senior lecturer in geography from the University of North London who is advising the Virgin team on jetstream patterns. "But it really is very unusual. This weather is out of season."

Mr Harris now thinks the chances are "50-50 that they could do it this year". But he is unsure whether the jetstream patterns will improve sufficiently this week to allow a takeoff.

Mr Branson's team on the Virgin Challenger had hoped to be the first team to circumnavigate the world by balloon. A rival project, run by a Dutchman, Henk Brink, has also been awaiting favourable weather since January. Mr Brink is presently in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.

Before the arrival of the 100-strong project team from the UK, Moroccans were being warned to restrict their use of water, while weather forecasters had grown used to annual patterns in the jetstream which would have taken the team eastwards to the Himalayas, and then neatly across the Pacific and Atlantic.

Mr Branson had already had to overcome more earthly problems before this challenge from the weather. While in Marrakesh, an aeroplane blew dust over the fragile envelope of the balloon, threatening to puncture it, though no holes were found.

Then he was waiting for permission from 197 countries to fly through their airspace; the last two eventually agreed a couple of weeks ago. The weather, it appears, is being less co- operative.