Balloonatic Richard Branson Puts His Faith in Hot Air

updated 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

While skydiving a few weeks ago, Richard Branson jumped out of a small plane and pulled the wrong ripcord. "I pulled the one that got rid of the parachute instead of opening it," he recalls with a laugh. "My instructor was right with me and pulled the cord for the emergency chute. It caught me around the neck and almost garroted me." Branson, the 36-year-old boss of a $450 million leisure and entertainment empire called the Virgin Group, survived his plunge over the English countryside. "But the next time I went up was the most frightening incident of my life," he adds. "I was waiting to dive and wondering if I had the nerve to say 'no' rather than the nerve to do it." Branson elected to jump, and this time he pulled the right cord. "The old adage that you must go straight up again is obviously right," he says. "Now I see the potential beauty of jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet."

Branson has a reputation for derring-do and perseverance. A year ago, on his second attempt, he set a transatlantic speed record of three days, eight hours and 31 minutes in a specially built powerboat. His first attempt a year earlier had failed when the boat collided with floating debris that cracked the hull. Yet Branson doesn't consider himself reckless. The skydiving, and a recent course in sea survival, are in fact part of the safety-training regimen for his next proposed adventure: the first Atlantic crossing in a hot-air balloon. (Previous crossings have been made in gas-inflated balloons.) Perhaps as early as next week, if the weather cooperates, Branson and Swedish-born balloon maker Per Lind-strand, 38, will climb into their pressurized capsule, lift off from Maine's Sugarloaf area and head east.

"If I thought my life was at stake, I wouldn't do it," says Branson. "I don't take unacceptable risks. The farthest a hot-air balloon has gone is 900 miles, and we're going 3,400, so the odds are against our being successful. But we think we've come up with a scheme to better the odds." The team's most unusual innovation is a system that will use solar energy to help heat the air inside the balloon, thus reducing the amount of liquid propane fuel that must be carried to keep the balloon aloft. The pair plans to stay up at least three days, riding air currents at an average altitude of 27,000 feet, which is above most bad weather but below airline flight paths. Once over the British Isles, they hope to land at dawn, when thermal activity is minimal. If they mistime their arrival, they may decide to continue blowing east, over Europe, until the air conditions are again suitable. Jokes Lindstrand, who designed the nylon, polyester and aluminum balloon at his factory in Shropshire, "I'd like to land in the Champagne district of France. They have better restaurants."

Branson says he doesn't seek challenges, but once tempted—the balloon crossing was Lindstrand's idea—he becomes deeply and personally involved. "I like to do it myself," he says. "The records are meaningless. The challenge is in the planning: trying to do it well and actually doing it well. If we fail but feel it can still be done, then we'll try again. You only live once."

As for his entrepreneurial challenges, Branson's triumphs are now legend. A boarding school dropout at 16, the Surrey-born son of a judge and a ballet dancer began his empire with a mail-order discount record business. Eventually he began making his own records under the Virgin label, which produced Boy George's Culture Club, Human League, the now-defunct Sex Pistols and Genesis. Over the years he has also invested in films—including 1984—TV stations and more record companies. Three years ago he started Virgin Atlantic Airways. Today the Virgin Group, of which Branson is a 70 percent stockholder, owns 124 companies, and Branson himself maintains an array of residences that includes an 11th-century country manor and a lavish retreat on his own small island—in the Virgins, naturally.

"It's hard to make your first million," says the blond, ever excitable entrepreneur, who lives with longtime girlfriend Joan Templeman, 40, and their children, Holly, 5, and Sam, nearly 2. "And it's a struggle to make $300 million, but easier than the first million. The hard thing is to maintain the spirit and flavor of the company." These days, he adds, Brits have few heroics to cheer about, and their spirits might be brightened by his $800,000 balloon project. Branson also expects a return in TV rights, memorabilia sales and publicity for his companies.

"As a child you have boyhood dreams," he muses, "but the difference between me and most people is that I'm able to fulfill those dreams." His goal, he says, is simple: "One day when I have grandchildren sitting on my knee, I can tell them what I have done, not what I could have done."

Meanwhile Branson, as well as his grandchildren yet unborn, are awaiting a three-day window of good weather.

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