Mad dogs and Englishmen

Branson lifts off amid the tears
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The Independent Online
In the end there was no ceremony. At 11.19am the explosive bolts tethering the Virgin Global Challenger balloon to its concrete launch pad were activated. Silently the canopy, looking like a giant garlic bulb, moved up and south, towards the snow-capped Atlas mountains and the sun.

Richard Branson hopes it is the start of three weeks which will see him and two friends break what he calls "the last great aviation record", by crossing the world non-stop in a balloon. But he knows it could be the last time his family ever sees him: a fatal crash-landing is entirely possible. For that and for other reasons, the five hours before the Moroccan launch were unusually emotional.

Even before dawn, there had been tears. Rory McCarthy, who had hoped he could shake off acute bronchitis to go on the global trip with Mr Branson, 46, and Per Lindstrand, the balloon's 47-year-old designer, was told at 5am by Mr Branson and his doctor that the risk was too great: if he flew, the cold, depressurised air in the capsule would turn his illness to pneumonia in 48 hours. "Ultimately it was my decision," said Dr Tim Evans. "I know daggers are drawn, but I know that I'm right."

Mr McCarthy was inconsolable, although he put on a brave face for the cameras. He has trained hard and has invested pounds 300,000 in the project. "When you've put so much of your life into something ... I just can't describe how I feel," he said at the airfield, as the sun rose at 7.45 and the preparations went on without him. "I'm sure the decision was right but that hasn't stopped me begging Richard to take me. A lot of tears were shed."

The third place went to Alex Ritchie, of Manningtree in Essex, at 52 the oldest member of the team.He was chief engineer on Mr Branson's Atlantic and Pacific balloon crossings.

Mr Branson arrived at the airfield at 8.30 to be greeted by Moroccan tribal dancers, ululating women, and traditionally dressed horsemen. Was he nervous? "Not as nervous as perhaps I should be," he said, clasping his hands (as he does when nervous).

"I know the danger, having been through the Atlantic and Pacific crossings so I hope the risks are less. But we're doing 8,000 miles over land initially, so if there are any serious glitches, hopefully we can sort them out before the Pacific."

The final indication that it would go ahead came at 10.35. Mr Branson said goodbye to his parents at the spectators' barrier (intended to keep us safe if the propane tanks around the capsule exploded). Back at the capsule, he embraced his son Sam, 11, his wife Joan and daughter Holly, and finally got in.

At 11.10 the stays tethering the balloon fell away with an explosive crack. Two hours later, the balloon was just a speck against the cloudless, hazy sky.

Branson later told ITN: "We are doing great.It was a little bit of a hairy launch. The balloon went up a little bit faster than we thought - about 2,000ft a minute - and started spewing helium.We seemed to head off in the wrong direction, but all was well in the end."

A great adventure indeed.

Leading article, page 11

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