He was always a great one for a challenge. He loves it when he's losing, but he always wins in the end.
—Eve Branson, Richard Branson's mother
Pulled along as if in a Chariot by the 160-mph winds of the Atlantic jet stream, rushing soundlessly toward the rising Irish coast in a gondola hitched to an enormous hot-air balloon, Richard Branson had never felt more at one with his world. Nor, in all ways, more on top of it.
By then Branson was Great Britain's reigning daredevil sportsman and poster-boy entrepreneur, the golden apple of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's eye, the charismatic head of one of Britain's most dynamic companies, Virgin Group, the founder of an upstart airline, Virgin Atlantic, and the master of his very own island in the Caribbean, a 74-acre jewel called Necker. Now here he was, on the afternoon of July 3, 1987, a multimillionaire at age 36, floating gently down the stream with his copilot, Per Lindstrand, beneath the largest hot-air balloon ever made: When fully gassed by its eight burners, its 12 miles of fabric inflated into a gigantic silver-black teardrop nearly 200 feet tall and 170 feet across. They had taken off from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine and were heading for Ireland in an attempt to become the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon. They were floating fast and free at 27,000 feet when one of Virgin Atlantic's 747s, bearing their family and friends, began circling overhead. Branson heard the voice of his mother—the source of his boundless drive, the object of his fondest wishes to please—crackle teasingly over the radio: "Can't you go any faster, Ricky?"
"I'm doing my best, Mum," he replied.
He had started ballooning only six months before they lifted off, and the experience enchanted him as he sailed serenely now above the fretful sea. "We were almost across the Atlantic," he recalls. "Ireland was just coming up. The circling 747 looked magnificent. For a brief moment, the world was perfect...."
And then, it suddenly wasn't. As they neared land that afternoon, the ground winds were fierce, and they sensed that they were in for a difficult landing. They had crossed the ocean so fast, in only 29 hours, that they still had three unused fuel tanks tethered to their gondola. They knew they were going to hit the ground hard, and fearing the tanks would explode, they were set to dump them. But as they descended near the village of Limavady, on Ireland's northern coastline, a sudden wind-swirl drove them downward in a rush. The gondola crashed to the earth, dislodging but not exploding the tanks; free of that weight, the balloon quickly rose again, barely missing a house as it climbed. And then it began to spin, twisting so fast that it puckered its own mouth, obstructing the blast of the lone auxiliary burner with which Lindstrand was trying to feed the balloon hot air. They began to fall again. They were going to crash. Much harder this time.
Branson clambered out of the gondola, hacking at the twisted cords with a large knife to open the mouth of the balloon. He finally cleared a passage, and the balloon, filling with hot air, expanded, steadied, swayed and began to climb again, carrying them back out to sea.
Drifting, they were now more helpless than ever. The crash had cut off their electrical power, which meant their fuel gauge was down, their radio was dead, and they were down to one small fuel tank. In the gathering chill they descended through a cover of thick clouds. Looking down, Branson saw the sea rise to meet them as they crashed into the frigid North Atlantic. Lindstrand frantically tried to blow the bolts connecting the gondola to the balloon—free of the balloon, their gondola would have floated like a bob—but they did not release. The balloon jerked them about, bouncing the capsule through icy swells. Screaming that they had to get out now, Lindstrand opened the hatch and lifted himself through it. As a rush of wind raised the balloon, lifting the gondola out of the water, Lindstrand dived into the ocean; Branson was about to follow when he felt the balloon, lightened by the loss of Lindstrand's 200 pounds, suddenly rise again.
Branson froze. The balloon soared to 200 feet...500 feet...1,000 feet...and was swallowed up in a swirl of clouds. Back inside the capsule, he fired the balloon's burner. The altimeter now read 12,000 feet. He was dangling in space, at the mercy of the arbitrary winds. He believed he was going to die. He wrote a last note to his wife and two kids: "Joan, Holly, Sam, I love you."
He then crawled outside, strapped on his inflatable life vest and his parachute. "I stood on top of the capsule and looked down," he says. "I knew I had to jump. Per had jumped because the balloon wouldn't separate from the capsule, which meant there was no way we could land it. I looked down at the swirling clouds." Only a month before, in preparing for this journey, he had made his first parachute jump. In his confusion he had pulled the wrong cord at 10,000 feet, jettisoning his main chute, and was saved in free fall only when his instructor dived to his side and jerked the cord of his auxiliary chute. Branson couldn't jump.