Branson's hot air blast defeats Chinese

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THE CHINESE Government, which bows before no one in the conduct of its internal affairs, met its match yesterday. Even a regime that fires rockets over Taiwan was unprepared to take on the publicity missile that is Richard Branson and his big balloon.

In a day of twists and turns, the ICO Global Challenger balloon was at one point facing an enforced touch-down and dramatic failure. The next minute a London news conference was told the Chinese had relented and Mr Branson was on his way.

This time it took the intervention of two prime ministers - Tony Blair and Sir Edward Heath. The project director, Mike Kendrick, said: "The Chinese say that in the end it was down to the British ambassador but I think Ted Heath and Tony Blair and all the others have also played a part."

Sir Edward himself obliged and said he was "very glad" if his efforts had helped to break the deadlock.

The Chinese had granted the team permission to fly through a restricted section of the country on condition the balloon leave Chinese airspace as soon as possible. The problems began when the balloon, with Everest looming in front of it, was forced to drift northwards into air space strictly controlled by the Chinese. At this point, Chinese air traffic controllers demanded that the balloon land.

Mr Kendrick said it was too dangerous because if the crew descended from their present altitude of almost 30,000ft, clouds would cause equipment to ice over, resulting in a crash. Chinese authorities asked the crew to land at Lhasa airfield in Tibet yesterday morning but, Mr Kendrick said, the balloon overshot and it was impossible to come down anywhere else.

The crew must now cope with having used up a large amount of fuel to keep the balloon free of ice.