Man's compulsion to fly was realized on 21 November 1783, when two French aviators rose 3,000 ft (914 m) above Paris in a balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers. The first manned hot-air balloon flight was made over 9 km (5.6 mi) and lasted 25 min, but the first chapter of aeronautical history had been written.
Some 204 years later, on 2-3 July 1987, businessman and serial record-chaser Richard Branson (UK), 36, and adventurer Per Lindstrand (Sweden), 38, channelled the Montgolfiers' ambition and spirit in their bid to cross the Atlantic Ocean - all 4,947 km (3,074 mi) of it between Sugarloaf in Maine, USA, and Limavady in Co Londonderry, UK - in a hot-air balloon (as opposed to a helium-filled balloon such as the Double Eagle II, which was successfully flown across the Atlantic in August 1978 by American pilots Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman).
Lindstrand's motivation for the challenge was Branson's record for the fastest Atlantic crossing, achieved in his Virgin Atlantic Challenger II powerboat in 1986. While admitting he loved to "achieve things that haven't been achieved before", Branson also had one eye on his business ventures and was eager for his fledgling Virgin Atlantic airline to provide some competition for British Airways. "We needed to come up with fun ways of promoting the airline, getting Virgin on the map," he said. Convinced by Lindstrand that a transatlantic hot-air balloon flight was both safe and achievable, the pair boarded the Virgin Atlantic Flyer in Sugarloaf on 2 July 1987.
The purpose-built Flyer, now preserved at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, UK, was the product of major advances in balloon technology. Built by Thunder & Colt, the 'envelope' was the largest ever flown at the time at 65,000 m³ (2.29 million cu ft, approximately the size of a 21-storey building) and was made of laminate fabric on a 'skeleton' of load tapes and webbing, with solar heat absorption fabric used around the bottom half. The Virgin-branded vessel utilized solar power to boost the effect of the propane gas burners heating the air, while the two-man capsule was pressurized to allow the crew to survive at high altitudes.
After the initial setback of losing a fuel tank on take-off, everything went to plan for Branson and Lindstrand as they soared serenely at speeds of up to 130 mph (209 km/h) on the Atlantic jet stream at 27,000 ft (8,229 m). "One hour into the flight I thought 'This is it!', because everything was working exactly as we predicted," admitted the Swede after the attempt. "Richard and I were pinching ourselves."
The landing on 3 July, however, was much more problematic. With fog reported in Scotland, their intended destination, they ended up grounding the balloon in Limavady, Northern Ireland, after 31 hr 41 min of flying time. Having set the record, they took off again to avoid nearby power cables, eventually ditching the out-of-control Flyer in the Irish Sea. Lucky to escape with their lives, inexperienced balloonist Branson was left to fly the stricken vessel alone when Lindstrand baled out. Both were eventually rescued from the freezing water by the Royal Navy.
After arriving home to a hero's welcome, thoughts soon turned to new adventures. In June 1988, Lindstrand claimed the hot-air balloon altitude record, rising 65,000 ft (19,812 m) over Laredo in Texas. Then, in January 1991, less than four years after conquering the Atlantic Ocean, Branson and Lindstrand were accompanied by American millionaire Steve Fossett on the first hot-air balloon flight across the Pacific. Their perilous, 7,671.9-km (4,767.1-mi) journey from Japan to Canada in the Virgin Otsuka Pacific Flyer lasted 46 hr 15 min.
With two hot-air ballooning 'firsts' across Earth's two largest oceans under his belt, Branson went on to make four attempts at circumnavigating the world in a hot-air balloon, but Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones took the honours in March 1999.
Our fascination with hot-air balloons continues to this day, even without the publicity generated by the likes of Branson and Lindstrand in their constant pursuit of aviation records. Gracefully going where the wind takes you has never been so appealing.