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Obituary: Alex Ritchie

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ALEX RITCHIE, who achieved international fame with his epic rescue of Richard Branson and his Virgin Global Challenger balloon at the very start of their attempt to fly around the world in January 1997, was an engineer who contributed as much as anyone to the rebirth of interest in long distance ballooning.

His trademarks were inventiveness and versatility, a combination that led some to dub him "a cross between Heath Robinson and the 21st century". He was an allrounder who had mastered technologies ranging from turbojets to gas diesel engines. He was involved not only with ballooning, but other "retail" cutting-edge ventures including the successful attack by Richard Noble's Thrust SSC on the world land speed record.

On a personal level as well, Ritchie fitted the legend of gifted Scots engineers who helped build industrial Britain. He was quiet and understated, yet a splendid storyteller. Above all he was cool under pressure - a quality never more in evidence than during the drama in the early hours of 6 January 1997.

It occurred less than 24 hours after Virgin Global Challenger, carrying Branson and his two co-pilots Ritchie and Per Lindstrand, had taken off from Morocco and set off east across the Sahara desert. The balloon had crossed into Algeria at an altitude of 30,000 feet when it began losing height precipitously, hurtling towards the ground at 40 feet per second.

Instantly grasping the urgency of the moment, Ritchie climbed on to the roof of the capsule, wearing a parachute and strapped to Challenger's fuselage. He jettisoned a fuel tank and other equipment, slowing the balloon's descent and enabling it to make an orderly landing. Branson later described the experience as "terrifying". Without his co- pilot, he gratefully acknowledged, "we would have gone into the ground. He saved our lives and is the hero of the hour. He showed unbelievable bravery."

Ritchie himself however was unflappable. Algeria was and remains an exceedingly dangerous country. Yet he was less concerned with the arrival of the helicopter gunship sent by the government which arrived to carry them back to civilisation, than with getting up-to-date on the latest football results.

Almost exactly a year later, also in Morocco, came the sky-diving accident which would ultimately claim his life. Training for another balloon bid, he fell some 13,000 feet onto a concrete car park when his parachute failed to open properly. He was taken back to Britain with a broken leg, pelvis and arm. There he underwent nine operations but developed a form of blood poisoning which proved fatal.

Alex Ritchie was a fully qualified and highly experienced gas balloon pilot and hot air balloon pilot, who designed and built the burners and engines for all three Virgin Global Challenger ventures. After taking a science degree at the University of Natal, and conducting machine tool research at Cambridge University, he spent three years as a project engineer for British Leyland. He later had spells at Noel Penny Turbines and Caterpillar Tractor, working on automotive gas turbines. At the time of his death he headed the family business J. Alex Ritchie, where he worked with his son.

His connections with Virgin Challenger however will live on. Richard Branson plans to dedicate next winter's round-the-world attempt to him. Even more pertinently, it will use a capsule designed and built by Alex Ritchie.

James Alexander Ritchie, engineer: born Glasgow 19 January 1945; married 1970 Jill Neave (two sons); died London 11 April 1998.