"Oh, screw it, let's do it."
Tuesday, 7 January 1997, Morocco
5:30 a.m. -- I woke before Joan and sat up in bed. From across Marrakech I heard the wavering cry of the muezzins calling people to prayer over the loudspeakers. I still hadn't written to Holly and Sam, so I tore a page out of my notebook and wrote them a letter in case I didn't return.
Dear Holly and Sam,
Life can seem rather unreal at times. Alive and well and loving one day. No longer there the next. As you both know I always had an urge to live life to its full. That meant I was lucky enough to live the life of many people during my 46 years. I loved every minute of it and I especially loved every second of my time with both of you and Mum.
I know that many people thought us foolish for embarking on this latest adventure. I was convinced they were wrong. I felt that everything we had learned from our Atlantic and Pacific adventures would mean that we'd have a safe flight. I thought that the risks were acceptable. Obviously I've been proved wrong.
However, I regret nothing about my life except not being with Joan to finally help you grow up. By the ages of 12 and 15 your characters have already developed. We're both so proud of you. Joan and I couldn't have had two more delightful kids. You are both kind, considerate, full of life (even witty!). What more could we both want.
Be strong. I know it won't be easy. But we've had a wonderful life together and you'll never forget all the good times we've had.
Live life to its full yourselves. Enjoy every minute of it. Love and look after Mum as if she's both of us.
I love you,
* * *
I folded the letter into a small square and put it in my pocket. Fully clothed and ready, I lay down beside Joan and hugged her. While I felt wide awake and nervous, she felt warm and sleepy in my arms. Holly and Sam came into our room and cuddled into bed between us. Then Sam slipped off with his cousins to go to the launch site and see the balloon in which I hoped shortly to fly around the world. Joan and Holly stayed with me while I got dressed and spoke to Martin, the meteorologist. The flight, he said, was definitely on; we had the best weather conditions we'd had for five years. I then called Tim Evans, our doctor. He had just been with Rory McCarthy, our third pilot, and had bad news: Rory couldn't fly. He had mild pneumonia, and if he was in a capsule for three weeks, it could get much worse. I immediately called up Rory and commiserated with him.
"See you in the dining room," I said. "Let's have breakfast."
6:20 a.m. -- By the time Rory and I met in the hotel dining room, it was deserted. The journalists who had been following the preparations for the launch over the previous twenty-four hours had already left for the launch site.
Rory and I met and hugged each other. We both cried. As well as becoming a close friend as our third pilot on the balloon flight, Rory had been joining forces with me recently on a number of business deals. Just before we had come to Morocco, he had bought a share in our new record label, V2, and had invested in Virgin clothes and Virgin Vie, our new cosmetics company.
"I can't believe I'm letting you down," Rory said. "I'm never ill-never, ever."
"Don't worry," I assured him. "It happens. We've got Alex, who weighs half your weight. We'll fly far further with him on board."
"Seriously, if you don't come back," Rory said, "I'll carry on where you left off."
"Well, thanks," I said, laughing nervously.
Alex Ritchie was already out at the launch site, supervising the mad dash to get the capsule ready with Per Lindstrand, the veteran hot-air balloonist who had introduced me to the sport. Alex was the brilliant engineer who had designed the capsule and the pressurizing system. Until then, no one had succeeded in building a system that could sustain balloon flights at jet-stream levels. Although he had built both our Atlantic and Pacific capsules, I didn't know him, and it was too late to find out much about him now. Despite having no flight training, Alex had bravely made the decision to come with us. If all went well with the flight, we'd have about three weeks to get to know one another-about as intimately as any of us would want.
Unlike our crossings of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans by hot-air balloon, on this trip we would not heat air until we needed to; the balloon had an inner core of helium, which would take us up. Per's plan was to heat the air around that core during the night; this in turn would heat the helium, which would otherwise contract and grow heavy and sink.
Joan, Holly, and I held hands and the three of us embraced. It was time to go.
8:30 a.m. -- We all saw it at the same time. As we drove along the dirt road out to the Moroccan air base, it looked as if a new mosque had sprouted overnight. Above the bending, dusty palm trees, a stunning white orb rose like a mother-of-pearl dome. It was the balloon. Men on horseback galloped along the side of the road, guns slung over their shoulders, heading for the air base. Everyone was drawn to this huge, gleaming white balloon hanging in the air, tall and slender
9:15 a.m. -- The balloon was cordoned off, and around the perimeter railing was an amazing collection of people. The entire complement of the air base stood off to one side in serried ranks, dressed in smart navy-blue uniforms; in front of them was the traditional Moroccan collection of dancing women, wearing white shawls, hollering, wailing, and whooping. Then a group of horsemen dressed in Berber costume and brandishing antique muskets galloped into view and lined up in front of the balloon. For an awful moment, I thought they would fire a celebratory salvo and puncture the balloon. Per, Alex, and I gathered in the capsule and completed a final check of all the systems. The sun was rising rapidly, and the helium was beginning to expand.
10:15 a.m. -- We had done all the checks and were ready to go. I hugged Joan and Holly and Sam one last time. I was amazed at Joan's strength. Holly had been by my side for the last four days, and she too appeared to be totally in control of the situation. I thought that Sam was as well, but then he burst into tears and pulled me toward him, refusing to let go. I almost started crying too. I will never forget the anguished strength of his hug. Then he kissed me and let go and hugged Joan. I ran across to kiss Mum and Dad good-bye. Mum pressed a letter into my hand. "Open it after six days," she said. I silently hoped that we would last that long.
10:50 a.m. -- There was nothing left to do except to climb up the steel steps into the capsule. For a second I hesitated and wondered when and where I would put my feet back on solid ground-or water. There was no time to think ahead. I stepped in through the hatch. Per was by the main controls; I sat by the camera equipment; and Alex sat in the seat by the trapdoor.
11:19 a.m. -- 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5-Per counted down and I concentrated on working the cameras. My hand kept darting down to check my parachute buckle. I tried not to think about the huge balloon above us, and the six vast fuel tanks strapped around our capsule-4, 3, 2, 1 . . . and Per threw the lever that fired the bolts that severed the anchor cables, and we lifted silently and swiftly into the sky. There was no roar of the burners; our ascent was like that of an enormous party helium balloon. We just rose up, up, and away, and then as we caught the morning breeze we headed over Marrakech.
The emergency door was still open as we soared up, and we waved at the by then little people below. Every detail of Marrakech-its square pink walls, the large town square, the green courtyards and fountains hidden behind high walls-was laid out beneath us. By 10,000 feet it became cold and the air grew thin. We shut the trapdoor. From then on we were on our own. We were pressurized, and the pressure would mount.
Our first fax came through the machine just after midday.
"Oh God!" Per handed it over. "Look at this."
"Please be aware that the connectors on the fuel tanks are locked on."
This was our first mistake. The connectors should have been locked off so that if we got into trouble and started falling, then we could jettison a one-ton fuel tank by way of ballast.
"If that's our only mistake, we're not doing badly," I said, trying to cheer Per up.
"We need to get down to five thousand feet, and then I'll climb out and unlock them," Alex said. "It's not a problem."
It was impossible to lose height during the day because the sun was heating the helium. The only immediate solution was to release helium, which, once released, would be impossible to regain. We couldn't afford to lose any helium, so we agreed to wait for nightfall to bring the balloon down. It was a nagging worry. We didn't know how this balloon would fly at night, and with our fuel tanks locked on, our ability to escape trouble was limited.
Although Alex and I tried to brush off the locked canisters, it sent Per into a fierce depression. He sat slumped by the controls in a furious silence, speaking only when we asked him a direct question.
We flew serenely for the rest of the day. The views over the Atlas Mountains were exhilarating, their jagged peaks capped with snow, gleaming up at us in the glorious sunshine. The capsule was cramped, full of supplies to last us eighteen days. However, locking off the connectors was not the only thing we'd forgotten to do. We'd also neglected to pack any lavatory paper, so we had to wait to receive faxes before we could go down the tiny spiral staircase to the loo. And my Moroccan stomach was in need of a lot of faxes. Per maintained his glowering silence, but Alex and I were just grateful that we knew then rather than finding ...
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