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Bad weather still grounds Branson balloon

January 24, 1998
Web posted at: 1:58 p.m. EST (1858 GMT)

MARRAKESH, Morocco (CNN) -- British tycoon Richard Branson and his team began readying the Challenger balloon Saturday for eventual take-off from its launch site, as Branson prepared for his new attempt to set a global record in a nonstop flight around the world.

Branson, who failed to get off the ground at his last attempt in December, said bad weather forecasts meant he probably would not be able to lift off until February.

Ground conditions in Marrakesh prevented the team from inflating the balloon Saturday, and the jet streams expected for the next 72 hours also were unsuitable for the flight, the team said on its Web page.

"Because of the weather (sic) bad conditions, we do not expect to fly before eight days," Branson said Saturday.

"I'm here in Marrakesh just for technical testing of the capsule," he said. Branson arrived in the central Moroccan city Friday night.

Branson, head of the Virgin Group of companies, is expected to return to London Sunday or Monday before flying back to Marrakesh to try to launch the balloon.

A series of balloonists, including Americans and a Swiss, have all recently failed in their attempts at the record.

Last month, Branson's team was grounded when the balloon sailed away without the capsule after a gust of wind ripped it from its mooring just hours before the launch. It was recovered, damaged, in Algeria.

A year ago, Branson and co-pilots Alex Ritchie and Per Lindstrand successfully lifted off, but were still over North Africa when their balloon began hurtling toward the ground at more than 40 feet (12 meters) per second.

The nighttime plunge only slowed when Ritchie climbed on to the roof of the capsule and managed to release two ballast tanks to lighten the balloon's load. The balloon managed to clear a mountain range and landed in the Algerian desert.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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