Who let go of the string?

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The Independent Online
Richard Branson's balloon began a flight around the world yesterday. Unfortunately there was nobody flying it. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, explains why, once more, the millionaire's attempt to break the unbroken navigation record has been punctured.

If The Simpsons were going on a round-the-world balloon trip, it would start like this: the balloon soaring into the sky, Homer saying "Doh!" and the would-be occupants left behind.

Instead it happened to Richard Branson yesterday, who stared aghast out of his hotel window in Marrakesh, Morocco, as the partially-inflated canopy of his pounds 2.5m attempt to fly non-stop by balloon around the world headed into the morning sky.

The canopy was torn from its moorings by a gust of wind off the Atlas mountains while it was being inflated - an eight-hour process which would have been complete in time for a 7pm takeoff. It had not been attached to the capsule where the three crew members would stay for their 20-day journey.

At first, Mr Branson, who was completing his packing, thought it was a joke. Then reality dawned. "When I looked out of the window I soon realised it was true," he said later at the airbase where the balloon had been.

"I could see out it of my hotel window rising very quickly and realised somehow or other I should be with it," he added.

Clive Howes, a photographer and amateur balloonist, was watching when the accident happened. "The problem was that the wind was above 10 knots, and that was just too strong for the ropes. One of the holding ropes broke first, and two or three of the crew members went to try and get it back," he said.

"Then the balloon sort of twisted round and another two ropes broke. Suddenly the balloon sucked into itself, kind of like a mushroom effect, and broke away. It started going up really quickly. The rest of the crew were just standing around and watching it because there was absolutely nothing they could do."

To add insult to injury, the canopy got further than Mr Branson's team did during its previous attempt, in January. Then they were crash-landed in Algeria just 19 hours after starting out, as the air cooled and the canopy lost its lifting power. This time, it was still flying at about 60,000 feet as it crossed the border, pursued by jets from the Moroccan Royal Air Force. They turned back, while the Virgin team began talking to the Algerian authorities about the possibility of shooting the canopy down.

No one has managed to circumnavigate the world nonstop by balloon. In January, the American Steve Fossett managed 9,500 miles over more than six days but eventually ran out of fuel.

Last night, the Virgin balloon team, including its designer Per Lindstrand and Alex Ritchie - the hero of the previous attempt, who crawled on to the top of the capsule as it plummeted to throw off ballast - were discussing what to do. This is its third attempt in two years: the first, in 1996, was called off due to bad weather.

Mr Branson said last night he believed the canopy may have landed in the Atlas mountains and he hoped it could be repaired for a second attempt on Saturday.