British billionaire Richard Branson and expert balloonist Per Lindstrand’s two hot-air balloon journeys fraught with danger and death-defying adventures is the theme of the riveting documentary Don’t Look Down, released in select theaters on November 11th and on Video on Demand.
The film chronicles the intrepid aeronauts’ hot-air balloon crossings of the Atlantic Ocean (from Maine to Northern Ireland) in 1987 and the Pacific Ocean (Japan to Canada) in 1991.
A high school dropout, Branson founded and built the Virgin Group, a conglomerate that includes Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Galactic. When he launched Virgin Air, he decided to harness the publicity from the balloon flight to grow the company and sell the idea of Virgin Atlantic in America.
“I knew that I had to use myself to get Virgin on the front pages,” Branson says, “rather than a little anecdote on the back pages.”
The iconic figure describes himself as a “tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist, and troublemaker,” and is well known for his uncanny ability to spot opportunities and embrace life-and-death risks to turn his far-fetched ideas into reality.
How he came to build his airline company is also an interesting story.
Once he was scheduled to fly on American Airlines from Puerto Rico to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), but the flight was canceled. Instead of waiting, he asked at the airport about chartering a plane and got one. Then, he grabbed a chalkboard and wrote ‘Virgin Airlines—One way to BVI, $39.’ He walked around the airport and found the bumped passengers to fill his first plane. After reaching the British Virgin Islands, a grateful passenger said, “Sharpen up the service a bit and you can be in the airline business.”
The next day, Branson called Boeing and asked if there were any used 747s for sale. He managed enough money to buy a plane, and now the most difficult task of marketing his tiny company lay ahead. His interest in flight technology and engineering led him to Per Lindstrand, a Swiss aeronautical engineer, balloon pilot, and a daring and innovative balloon designer.
Lindstrand told Branson that previous record setting balloon crossings took place at 6000 and 7000 feet and were often plagued by bad weather, but if they traveled above the weather into the jet stream they could cross the Atlantic at speeds of up to 130 miles per hour. Five of the six people who had tried this before had perished, but that did not deter them, and Branson said, “Let’s do it.”
For the perilous journeys, Branson needed to learn only two skills: Skydiving and piloting a balloon! Initially drawn to the idea for a publicity stunt, the attraction had turned into a personal challenge.
The movie shows Branson learning to skydive as that would be his only way out of a doomed flight– a freefall from the thin air at 30- or 40-thousand feet till he reached the thicker air below and then parachuting down to earth. He also learned to pilot a balloon and looked forward to the Atlantic flight, which had a bad start. Two full propane tanks fell during launch and triggered their rapid ascent.
Though fraught with difficulties, in 29 hours they crossed the Atlantic, but the nightmare began after an attempted landing in Limavady, Northern Ireland. As they prepared to dump the surplus fuel to prepare for landing, a wind gust slammed the balloon driving them into the ground. They were out of control, their radio links were destroyed, and all external fuel tanks were knocked down. Much lighter now, the balloon, though partially inflated, shot up in the air. They had some nerve-wracking moments in bringing the balloon down, and they aimed to land on the beach, but again the wind slammed the balloon and blew them to the Irish sea. Nothing was visible in the heavy fog. They hit the sea and the balloon dragged them across the waves. Explosive bolts meant to cut off the cables that connected the capsule to the balloon did not work. Lindstrand pushed open the hatch, hoisted himself up, and shouted, “Richard, we’ve got to get out,” and jumped in the water. Minus his weight, the balloon lifted off into the clouds with Branson on top of the capsule.
“I found myself in the biggest air balloon ever built, all alone,” says Branson, “My fellow balloonist had jumped. I never saw my life flash before my eyes. It was just … extraordinary loneliness, sadness. I’d had an extraordinary life and it looked like this was the last two or three minutes of it. I wrote a note to the kids, telling them how much I loved them … and then I prepared to jump.”
The thrill of the Atlantic Ocean crossing obviously lingered and now Branson and Lindstrand set their eyes on crossing the Pacific. Branson’s parents were usually encouraging but this time his father tried to talk him out of it.
The film also chronicles the Pacific flight and shows some of their most dangerous moments. At one point, the balloon kept climbing, though air was being released from the open vent. It reached an altitude of 42,500 feet and since none of the equipment had been tested at that altitude, anything could have gone wrong; they even feared that the glass dome of the capsule would explode. The Pacific flight turned out to be a miracle given the many hair-raising situations when they thought they faced a quick or sudden death and sometimes a slow and miserable one.
To Branson, risks are a part of life and of any new venture. “Life is short anyway,” Branson says, “and I think if I don’t end up dying in my bed, but I end up dying on one of those adventures, I would have lived a much fuller life for it.” Nevertheless, the ballooning adventures helped put his fledgling airline company on the world map.
Director Daniel Gordon uses footage recorded inside the balloons during flight. He also uses interviews with all the major contributors that gives us a glimpse into Branson’s personality and upbringing and the influence of his parents, wife, and children on his outlook and success, and his knack for building partnerships and embracing risks.