Author: Richard Branson
Like Richard Branson, I have also failed to be expertly seduced by a ‘young Scandinavian school matron’. Branson missed this opportunity at Stowe, where he was dealing with bullying and a buckled knee. While Branson was studying fagging in Buckinghamshire, I was learning Swedish at Trinity hall, Cambridge and writing my unread book on the Irish Board of Works. Branson’s adolescent daydream did not come from nowhere. It was most probably in his genes. Branson, although he might laugh at the idea, in physical appearance looks stereotypically Nordic, the surname, at least to my Swedish, being literally translated as ‘son of fire’. Fiery he certainly is, from his lurid sexual fantasies about Scandinavian girls, to his ballooning adventures.
What I do have in common with Branson is ballooning. My experience was limited to an exhilarating take off which included a false start when my wife flew into the air with a bit of balloon rigging during the inflation stage of the enterprise, and a hard landing in vineyards which could (but didn’t) tear a limb off. I certainly would not try it twice. Branson, however, was an addicted balloonist.
Branson felt a roar in his ears not with a Swedish matron, but with a gentleman Swedish risk taker, Per Lindstrand, who introduced Branson to seriously challenging ballooning. Most Swedish entrepreneurs and inventors are at home out on a limb, although not so many of them experience the gondola. From Alfred Nobel who blew up his brother while manufacturing dynamite, to the global magnates behind Ericsson, Saab, Electrolux, Husqvarna, Volvo, (the list is very, very long) Swedes are prepared to give almost anything a go. Branson was just like his daredevil Swedish friend Per, who enters the autobiography in an unpromising way. Branson recalled the telephone conversation:
‘If you thought that crossing the Atlantic by boat was impressive,’ said a stilted, Swedish voice, ‘think again. I am planning to build the world’s largest hot-air balloon, and I’m planning to fly it in the jet stream at 30,00 feet. I believe that it can cross the Atlantic.’
I had vaguely heard of Per Lindstrand. I knew that he was a world expert at ballooning and held several records, including one for reaching the highest altitude. Per explained to me that nobody had flown a hot-air balloon further than 600 miles, and nobody had been able to keep a hot-air balloon up in the4 air for longer than 27 hours. In order to cross the Atlantic, a balloon would have to fly more than 3,000 miles, five times further than anyone had ever managed before, and spend three times longer up in the air.
A balloon filled with helium, like the old zeppelins, can stay in the air for several days. A hot-air balloon relies on the hot air within the envelope rising above the surrounding cold air and taking the balloon with it. But the loss of heat through the balloon’s envelope is rapid, and in order to heat the air balloonists burn propane. Until Per’s proposed flight, hot-air balloons had been hampered by the impossible weight of fuel needed to keep them afloat.
Per thought that we could break the flight record by putting three theories into practice. The first one was to take the balloon up to an altitude of around 30,000 feet and fly along in the fast winds, the jet streams, which move along at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour. This had previously been considered impossible as their power and turbulence could shred any balloon. The second was to use solar power to heat the balloon’s air during the day and thus save fuel. This had never been attempted. The third was that, since the balloon would be flying at 30,000 feet, the pilots would be in a pressurised capsule rather than the traditional wicker basket.
As I studied Per’s proposal, I realised with amazement that this vast balloon, a huge ungainly thing which could swallow the Royal Albert Hall without showing a bulge, was actually intended to cross the Atlantic Ocean in far less time than our Atlantic Challenger boat with its 4,000-horsepower engine. Per reckoned on a flying time of under two days, with an average speed of 90 knots compared with the boat’s speed of just under 40 knots. It would be rather like driving along in the fast lane of the motorway only to be overtaken by the Royal Albert Hall travelling twice as fast.
After wrestling with some of the science and the academic calculations about inertia and wind speeds, I asked Per to come and see me. When we met, I put my hand on the pile of theoretical calculations.
‘I’ll never understand all the science and theory,’ I said, ‘but I’ll come with you if you answer me this one question.’‘Of course,’ Per said, stiffening his back in readiness for some incredibly challenging question.‘Do you have any children?’‘Yes, I’ve got two.’‘Right, then.’
I stood up and shook his hand.
‘I’ll come. But I’d better learn how to fly one of these things first.’
It was only later that I learnt that seven people had already tried to be the first to cross the Atlantic and that five of them had perished. Who knows how many Vikings tried to cross the Atlantic before one made it? Probably thousands. Some deliberately, others just sailing before wind, hoping not to fall out or founder. Branson’s adventurous nature was well in tune with Per’s. Sailing is fun, but lacks the unnatural exhilaration of flight. Branson explains it thus:
‘I love ballooning. It is one of the most peaceful things I have ever done and makes me feel completely immersed in nature. Apart from the times when you fire the burner, which can frighten horses and cows and make them stampede across their fields, when you are gliding along you feel absolutely separate from the rest of the world. Nobody can telephone you, nobody can interfere with your flight: you are free.’
Being free and off the ‘phone has its drawbacks. You can easily die. As happens in crises in the heavens, whether on a Boeing 747 or air balloon, one has time to think about what might happen if human hubris or bravery or bad luck gets out of control. In one rolling disaster Branson had time to think
‘We would have about two seconds in which to say our last prayers, long enough to see our lungs being sucked out of our chests. After that our eyeballs would pop out of their sockets. We would become a scattering of debris somewhere in the Pacific.’
On another occasion, Branson recalled
‘We were somewhere over the Pacific, hanging by a few steel hawsers to a vast balloon, the remaining fuel tanks dangling off the side of the capsule like a necklace, and we could not make any contact with anybody. We could barely control where we were going or how fast we were getting there, and we hardly dared move around the capsule.’
When he was not testing himself to destruction, Branson made great and modest contributions to human happiness, some of them in unlikely circumstances with human demons. Five pages of the autobiography describes Branson’s dealings with Saddam Hussein in the name of humanity when he carried out a dramatic ‘Baghdad hostage-rescue flight’. The book could be subtitled almost anything. From Johnny Rotten to the Sex Pistols. From Tubular Bells to the Tokyo Megastore. Like everything about Branson, his vapour trails are unpredictable. Except in one area: his Swedish social democrat-like concern for his Virgin Staff.
So, readers, don’t be jealous. Don’t be resentful. Branson has the average ambitions of the normal Viking, as expressed on the Stockholm rune stone which reads ‘my aim is to find gold in foreign lands, and feed my enemies to the eagles’. Branson, like Rollo rather than Hagar, has plenty of aggression in his makeup. He looks for enemies as well as gold. There are plenty to be found in aircraft slots, in Heathrow, Kingsford Smith, or New York. As a modern Viking, Branson’s enemies are QANTAS and British Airways, his gold the slots, but the fun derived from the contest is just the same as the exhilaration felt 2 millenia ago by the Vikings, whose sense of adventure took them away from home, and their Swedish matrons.