Branson sets sights on breaking last great aviation record

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The Independent Online

Richard Branson, the Virgin chief, is this weekend finalising his preparations for a race to claim the accolade of being the first to circumnavigate the world propelled only by the winds.

But he may be beaten to his latest world record attempt by a Dutch helicopter pilot.

On Wednesday, Mr Branson, the balloonist Per Lindstrand and a business partner, Rory McCarthy, will set off from Marrakesh, Morocco, in a round- the-world attempt to break the last great aviation record. In the Virgin Global Challenger balloon, they plan to circumnavigate the globe in 18 days.

But Henk Brink, 52, may beat them to it. The Dutchman is planning a global flight in the high-tech Unicef Flyer balloon in an attempt described as "very serious" by the Branson camp.

Both he and Mr Branson have done their homework. Both balloons will be fully heated and pressurised, allowing access to the 100mph jet streams required to travel.

The two balloons have both been designed by Mr Branson's co-pilot Per Lindstrand. Mr Brink is leaving from the Dutch town of Nijmegen, some time next week, he hopes. A spokesman said: "It is very likely we will have the right conditions next week. Henk will do his utmost to get away first."

Mr Branson's spokesman,Will Whitehorn, said he initiated the flight after the challenge was laid down by Mr Brink. "Richard's very much hoping it will be a race," he said.

Mr Whitehorn added that the Challenger stood to win the race because of the calmer ground conditions in Marrakesh, and a strong jet stream of 30,000 feet. The 174ft balloon has a unique balloon envelope combined from nylon and Melinex - the silver metallised plastic found on the inside of some crisp packets. Melinex helps to keep the balloon warm at night and cool during the day. The Challenger will be carried only by the winds 30,000 feet up.

The 35-tonne balloon was being flown yesterday from Cammell Laird shipyard on Merseyside to Morocco in preparation for Wednesday's departure. Mr Branson has also enlisted heavyweight back-up for the venture. British Aerospace has lent him a transport aircraft in case of emergencies and Rolls-Royce engineers in Derby successfully tested the engine for the balloon's life- support system in November.

Whatever the outcome, neither camp has to worry about an American rival, Steve Fossett, who set off from South Dakota on Monday only to limp back to Canada after crash-landing over the Atlantic, 100 miles into the journey. But for Mr Branson, Mr Brink represents a more serious threat.