Branson looks for the cloud in his silver lining

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The Independent Online
CHARLES ARTHUR

Marrakesh

Richard Branson was treading carefully yesterday after discovering that his plan to make the first non-stop circumnavigation of the world by balloon may have been punctured inadvertently by his hosts in Morocco.

Mr Branson (above) revealed that a Hercules aircraft belonging to King Hassan II's flight had blown gravel and grit into the hangar housing his Virgin Global Challenger balloon when taking off, and could have put undetectable holes in the 170-foot canopy. The dynamics of the helium- filled balloon are so finely balanced that a tear the size of a fingertip would halve its lifting ability and add four days to the planned 18-day circumnavigation.

Mr Branson and the balloon's assembly team have been inspecting the thousands of square feet of high-strength silver plastic for any signs of damage. "We did find a couple of small stones," he said. So far, no holes have turned up, though the team admits it will not be sure until the balloon is inflated. That will not be done until all other preparations are complete and weather conditions are right.

There are two other clouds on Mr Branson's horizon. The first is that a rival balloonist, Henk Brink of the Netherlands, wants to beat him to the prize for the non-stop flight, and yesterday announced that he hoped to take off on Sunday.

The other problem is that every country over which the Virgin balloon will cross has so far given permission for his flight - except Morocco's closest neighbour, Algeria.

Photograph: John Voos

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