Branson hogs hot air of publicity

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The Independent Online
Many of the sponsors of Richard Branson's project to fly a helium-filled balloon non-stop around the world have found themselves edged out of the media spotlight - to their growing annoyance.

While Mr Branson has courted attention from newspapers, radio and television on behalf of the three Virgin companies co-sponsoring the project - which has an estimated cost of pounds 2.5m - the other 91 sponsors involved with it have struggled to win any attention at all.

Bad weather has delayed the balloon's take-off by more than a week from its planned start, and it will probably not take off from Marrakesh, in southern Morocco, until next week.

A number of sponsors are privately fuming at the manner in which Virgin has taken the lion's share of the publicity, while spending comparatively little.

Almost all the equipment for the project - including the high-technology balloon material and propane fuel to power the engines needed to keep the three-man crew alive while aloft - has been donated by outside companies.

Many people have worked for free to assemble and test the balloon, though their hotel costs are being covered by Virgin. The team, numbering almost 50 people, has now been at the site near Marrakesh for almost two weeks while the weather - particularly the pattern of winds - has made a take- off impossible.

The balloon material consists of 16,000sq ft of high-strength, aluminium- coated plastic worth at least pounds 15,000, provided by HiFi Industrial Film, based in Stevenage. The company, with annual revenues of just pounds 7.5m, had hoped to benefit from publicity. Instead, it has found its name almost submerged, while the balloon now bears Virgin's name in large letters. "We have had to fight for everything," said Andrew Mallard, who represented the firm in Morocco.

The 4.5 tons of specially processed liquid propane fuel that will power the engines was provided free by Mobil. Just over a fortnight ago, Mobil received an urgent request to deliver the fuel to Marrakesh - three days ahead of schedule. But on arriving two weeks ago, the drivers, paid by Mobil, were told that the balloon would not be lifting off for at least five days.

But David Partridge, a Virgin director who is the project's manager, says this was because Mr Branson was very keen not to be beaten in the attempt to make the first non-stop circumnavigation. That was threatened earlier this year by the launch of a balloon piloted by an American, Steve Follett.

"Our original plan for when we wanted the propane and helium went out the window when Steve Follett took off. Richard wanted everything done right away. We didn't want any hold-up caused by the balloon being ready but the helium or propane not being there.

"Richard, in his zest to be first and not beaten, applied pressure on me and everybody in the team to make it work."

However, the delays caused by the weather have meant that the extra effort has gone to waste, and left observers wondering what the rush was about.

If the unfavourable weather continues into February, the attempt may have to be abandoned until November, when air conditions at 30,000ft will once again be suitable to try a flight.