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Balloonists' goal: Around the world in 18 days

They take off, hope to be first to circle globe

January 7, 1997
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT)

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MARRAKECH, Morocco (CNN) -- British entrepreneur Richard Branson and two co-pilots rose slowly into the Moroccan sky on Tuesday, hoping to become the first to fly nonstop around the world by balloon.

"I love a challenge ... It's going to be a great adventure," the 46-year-old chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways told CNN in a live interview prior to lifting off in the huge white balloon. The hot-air and helium-filled Virgin Global Challenger is 174-feet high, the size of a 12-story building.

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Branson, Per Lindstrand, 48, and Alex Ritchie, 50, planned an 18-day flight from North Africa over the Middle East, Iran, India, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. The balloon will reach an altitude of more than 30,000 feet (10,000 meters).

They hoped to land at Oxford, England.

Crew member replaced at last minute

Ritchie was a last-minute replacement for Rory McCarthy, who told reporters he had to pull out because of suspected pneumonia.

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Branson postponed the voyage last February, saying the balloon risked being ripped apart by thunderstorms and there was a lack of jet stream winds needed to cross the Pacific at speeds of up to 240 mph.

"I am confident," Branson told reporters before embracing his wife Joan and children Holly and Sam and climbing into the $3 million balloon for the 11:19 a.m. (1119 GMT) launch from an air base near the Moroccan city of Marrakech.

As the Global Challenger floated slowly upward against a backdrop of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, Branson could be seen waving to his family.

Balloon to speed up in jet stream

Lindstrand said the balloon would travel at 19 to 25 mph (30 to 40 km per hour) over the Atlas Mountains and that they expected to cross the Algerian border after 12 hours.

"When we reach the jet stream our speed will accelerate," he said. Marrakech was chosen as an ideal spot to enter the southern jet stream.

A transmitter linked to London will give real-time readings of the balloon's location.

The trip also has a scientific purpose. Working with university researchers, the crew will take air samples in higher altitudes to check the pollution-threatened ozone layer.

Branson and Lindstrand are already record-holders. They were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon in 1987, and the Pacific in 1991.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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