Branson's balloon waits on weather

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The Independent Online
CHARLES ARTHUR

Marrakesh

Adverse weather conditions over Asia have forced Richard Branson and his Virgin Global Challenger team to delay their attempt to fly around the world in a giant helium-filled balloon, at least until next Tuesday.

Computer forecasts by the Meteorological Office, in Bracknell, Berkshire, of the weather at 30,000 feet for the next four days suggest that once the balloon had crossed Europe, strong winds would blow it so far north that it would quickly take on up to two tonnes of ice, and be forced to the ground.

Martin Harris, a meteorological expert from the University of North London, and an adviser to the team, said yesterday: "We have to wait until conditions in the jetstream are just right. At the moment the winds would push the balloon north. There the air is so cold that as soon as it came down . . . into more damp air it would ice up - just like an ice lolly when you take it out of the fridge."

However, this news has not caused a depression to cross Mr Branson's warm front. "Sooner or later, we're going to fly," he said. "And Morocco is not a bad place to wait in."

Poor weather has also delayed Henk Brink, a Dutchman who had intended to launch a rival attempt from the Netherlands on Sunday. Some reports suggest Mr Brink may abandon his attempt altogether.

Mr Branson and his team-member Per Lindstrand, who designed the balloon, said they feared ice more than any other weather phenomenon:"Lightning just makes a hole in the balloon," said Mr Lindstrand, "you would have to come down, but it won't kill you." This was proven in the 1950s, when lightning struck one of the first balloon attempts to cross the Atlantic. The pilot's name? Bobby Sparks.

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