Branson record bid airborne

RICHARD BRANSON and his round-the-world balloon crew were yesterday heading towards the Middle East after a perfect morning launch.

After a two-week wait for the right weather conditions and overcoming complications caused by the crisis in Iraq the ICO global challenge set off on its 24,000-mile flight at 9.30am from Marrakesh in Morocco with its three-man crew.

Mr Branson, 48, Per Lindstrand, 47, and millionaire American Steve Fossett, 54, who hold numerous ballooning records between them, have dedicated the attempt to their former co-pilot Alex Ritchie who died in April after a parachuting accident. Mr Ritchie saved the lives of Messrs Branson and Lindstrand when the Virgin Global Challenger balloon crashed in the Algerian desert in January 1997.