Helicopters rescued the Virgin tycoon and his team as low pressure forced him to abort his third assault on the last great aviation record with a controlled landing in the sea near Hawaii at around 7.30pm Greenwich Mean Time. The flight fell short of the 10,406-mile distance record set by his co-pilot, the American millionaire Steve Fossett.
Staff at the expedition's London headquarters cheered as Mr Branson, Mr Fossett and the third team member, Per Lindstrand emerged safely. Mr Branson told his supporters: "I am sorry to have let people down." He added: "Until today, the voyage had been a fascinating journey. We really thought we had it in our grasp." Mike Kendrick, the project director, said: "I know it was a failure, but it was a glorious failure."
The team spent Christmas Day trying to land the 279ft-high balloon off Hawaii, after realising the low pressure system was likely to stall them for a week. But they abandoned a plan agreed with coastguards the day before to parachute out, because of high swelling seas.
Instead, they decided to fly the craft down but were dragged for more than two miles after pins designed to release the balloon envelope froze. Water began seeping into the capsule as they bounced off the waves. "We held on for dear life," Mr Branson said. The balloon had travelled more than halfway around the world since taking off in Morocco on 18 December, but the low pressure system pushed them in the wrong direction. Mr Kendrick said they had missed by about an hour the high westerly winds that would have whisked them across the Pacific.
During the flight, the team had to contend with a series of problems which included avoiding Iraqi air space during last week's Anglo-American bombing raids.Reuse content