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.