A British tycoon and a Swedish-born balloonist broke a distance record Thursday and sped along at up to 142 m.p.h. as they attempted the first Atlantic crossing in a hot-air balloon.
Traveling far faster than expected with the aid of the jet stream, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand covered the first 1,000 miles of their 3,400-mile journey in a little more than 10 hours. They broke the distance mark for hot-air balloons at 907 miles while passing about 140 miles southeast of St. John's, Newfoundland.
"It has been the most spectacular and magnificent flight," Branson said by radio. "When we arrived at 27,000 feet, we hit the very cold weather (about 40 below zero). There was an enormous cloud behind us that created a massive vapor trail. For a moment I thought the balloon was on fire."
If the balloonists maintain their early speed, they would reach Great Britain in about 40 hours, said Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the flight. But the balloonists are prepared to stay aloft for more than three days, expecting to land Saturday night.
Branson, 36, the head of an entertainment conglomerate and chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and Lindstrand, 38, lifted off Thursday morning from a Maine ski resort. Their 21-story-high balloon, with a pressurized capsule suspended below, had never before been inflated or flown.
Hot-air balloons use fuel to heat air that is trapped inside the balloon, giving it lift, and it was thought that a hot-air balloon could not carry enough fuel to cross the Atlantic. Three other Atlantic balloon crossings have been accomplished with helium-filled balloons.
The Virgin Atlantic Flyer is designed to use sunlight to heat the air inside the balloon, and flight spokesman Bob Rice said it was working.
The balloon was carrying 4 tons of propane gas, mostly for use after dark to heat the air after the sun goes down. It lost three-quarters of a ton on taking off when a ground line snagged two tanks.