As I’ve said, Maine was very fertile ground for strange and unusual stories (and strange and unusual people, as well). But no story was stranger than when Richard Branson came to a Maine ski lodge to begin a transatlantic flight to Europe in a hot air balloon. Branson’s balloon lifted off at a little after 4 in the morning and, even though the clipping indicates that this happened in July, I remember being pretty cold as we all huddled in the pre-dawn darkness on a mountain at the Sugarloaf Ski Resort in Carrabassett in 1987. We all thought the balloon may have been doomed when two large propane tanks clattered to the ground just as the balloon lifted off. Branson’s adventure was successful, and this story (and others) appeared in newspapers across the country.
By ARTHUR FREDERICK
CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine (UPI) – The Virgin Atlantic Flyer, shoved along by the jet stream, soared past the old distance record for hot air balloons Thursday, just nine hours after lifting off from a Maine ski resort on a first-ever transatlantic trip to Europe.
The huge black-and-silver balloon carried its two British pilots, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand, past the old record at around 27,000 feet, an altitude that allowed the balloon to take advantage of the jet stream while avoiding bad weather at lower altitudes.
A spokesman for the ground crew back in Maine said the balloon had been sailing along at 100 miles per hour or more since takeoff. The old distance record of 907 miles was surpassed in around nine hours, 18 hours less than the time necessary to set the old record.
But neither Branson nor Linstrand appeared too interested in the new distance record which they set just after 1 p.m., nine hours after the balloon left the ground at 4:15 a.m.
“There is a lot of ocean out there, the machine is complex, the weather forecasts are complex, and a lot of things can go wrong,” said Bob Rice, the project’s meteorologist. “They want to fly 3,000 miles, so 900 miles doesn’t mean that much.”
Branson told the ground crew by radio the flight was going smoothly, but said he was frightened at one point when he spotted a vapor trail near the capsule.
“When we arrived at 27,000 feet we hit very cold weather,” Branson said. “There was an enormous cloud behind us that created a massive vapor trail, and for a moment I thought the balloon was on fire.”
It wasn’t the only frightening moment for the two balloonists. As the giant silver-and-black balloon lifted off , two of the 12 large propane fuel tanks surrounding the pressurized capsule fell off and a cluster of sandbags failed to let go as planned.
Branson radioed the round crew and said that he and Lindstrand were aware of the problems.
“It was obvious that there was a problem with the liftoff,” Branson said. “We found some of the sandbags were still attached to the capsule, and we came up at a slight tilt. We have dumped the bags in a forest, and that leveled the capsule.”
Branson said by radio the two fliers would be able to tell by early Friday what the lost fuel would mean to the success of the flight. But project manager Chris Moss said the loss of the fuel tanks should not threaten the flight’s success.
“We had about 100 hours of propane built in for the flight, but we expected to need only about 39 hours,” Moss said. “This will allow them to rise more quickly and fly a little higher, and it shouldn’t have any serious effect on the flight.”
Branson and Lindstrand planned a 65-hour flight to Europe, but the unexpected high speed of the balloon would reduce that estimate, possibly to 48 hours.
The ground crew began filling the Virgin Atlantic Flyer with cold air about 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, the first stage in a two-step process of inflating the mammoth craft. Hot air was added about two hours before the liftoff.
Two Atlantic balloon crossings have been accomplished before, but both were in helium balloons.
Before liftoff, Branson spent a few moments with his elderly parents before the two pilots climbed into the capsule.
“I’m enormously excited,” Branson said. “We are about to enjoy the most exciting three days of our lives, so I really am looking forward to getting in and getting on. It’s a magnificent moment of my life.”
Lindstrand’s mother, who taped the liftoff with a video camera, said she was confident the flight would succeed.
Branson, founder and owner of the $400 million Virgin Group, that includes Virgin Records and Virgin Altlantic Airlines, said the key to the flight is flying at very high altitude, something the balloon can handle because of its pressurized capsule.
The balloon is 196 feet tall, 170 feet across and holds 2.3 million cubic feet of hot air. It is about 30 times bigger than most common hot air balloons, and more than twice the size of the previous largest balloon.
In St. John’s, Newfoundland, British balloonists Don Cameron and Jim Howard were sitting by their shortwave radios, listening to British Broadcasting Corporation updates on Branson’s journey.
Cameron and Howard were vying with Branson and Lindstrand to become the first crew to make a trans-Atlantic crossing in a hot-air balloon, but their chances looked negligible Thursday because of heavy cloud cover which has prevented their launching.
“We’re sitting here depressed because of the clouds and the fact that Branson is doing so well,” organizer Alan Noble said. Friday evening would be the earliest takeoff time possible according to weather data, Noble said.
“By that time Branson could be in the United Kingdom,” Noble said. The losing team has agreed to donate $75,000 to charity.