Under my byline

Hits and near-misses

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 23 July 2010

An idiosyncratic history of human flight, by a modern air adventurer and entrepreneur

Reach for the Skies: Ballooning, Birdmen and Blasting into Space — How a Handful of Pioneers Risked It All to Make Dreams a Reality
Richard Branson
Virgin Books
pp viii + 344

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He doesn’t seem to have made a single one of his record attempts and record-breaking journeys without having stared death in the face. If it wasn’t weather, it was equipment failure, or extreme bad luck. Richard Branson has been in a high-speed boat that capsized and a fast sailing sloop that was battered by huge seas, both on cross-Atlantic record runs; a giant hot-air balloon which pitched into rough, cold water off Ireland after a cross-Atlantic voyage; one more giant balloon which crossed the Pacific Ocean despite dropping much of its fuel, only to land badly on one of the thousands of featureless frozen lakes in northern Canada; yet another balloon on a round-the-world attempt which crashed in the Algerian desert amidst a civil war; other balloons which danced over air defences in West Asia or aimed themselves suicidally at Mt Everest and K2…

Yet the closest Branson appears to have felt to death was a solo, and short, flight he took in his early 20s, years before any of his record attempts. It was his first ever experience of flying, and the aircraft was the Pterodactyl Ascender. It looks like a tricycle suspended from a hang-glider, with a propeller behind. With both hands needed to steer, the engine throttle consisted of a rubber bulb the flyer held in his mouth.

The plan for Branson’s first lesson was that he should learn how to taxi down the runway. At 30 kmh, and with the end of the runway approaching, Branson spat out the rubber bulb as instructed. But the engine did not cut off, and the Pterodactyl took to the air.

He writes: “I opened my eyes. I was above the trees. I was flying. Except that I didn’t know how to fly. Or land. Or slow down.” He wove around a tree or two, rigid with terror, and finally decided: “Pull the wires out.” After enough wires came out, the engine finally died and he brought the Pterodactyl down in a field.”I walked away from my first flying lesson with a few bruises and with my confidence badly shaken,” he writes. “Maybe, I thought, I am not cut out to fly.” A few days later, his instructor was killed on the same faulty machine.

Branson is a British entrepreneur, adventurer and celebrity, and one of his nation’s chief cultural exports. Branson founded the Virgin group of companies as a mail-order music record business in the 1970s, but now its 300-plus companies do media and entertainment, finance, travel, F1 racing and aerospace engineering. He’s a consummate self-publicist. Both his name and that of his group are so well known that, as he has often boasted, he usually does not pay for his own adventures: sponsors are happy to see their names alongside Virgin’s on the sides of a giant balloon or experimental spacecraft. For Virgin, it is free publicity.

This is Branson’s fourth book, and like the others it is autobiographical to a degree. Of the others, two — Business Stripped Bare and Screw It, Let’s Do It (this is said to be one of the author’s favourite phrases) — are about his business life, and Losing My Virginity is about his life and business. All three are suitably inspirational. So is Reach for the Skies — but this book is not all about Branson. Instead it is his tribute to the many men and women who have dedicated and in many cases forfeited their lives to the pursuit of advance in air travel. This is a cast of clever and courageous obsessives.

Like most good businessmen Branson knows how to tell a story. His book is in effect an idiosyncratic history of aerospace experimentation, from 18th-century balloons (though he does mention Daedalus and Icarus before that) to 21st-century space tourism. Quite effectively, Branson breaks the story up into potted histories and anecdotes which describe the most interesting projects along with their human motors. This bracing human presence reminds readers, if we needed reminding, that cutting-edge thinking calls for outliers, brilliant, adaptable and driven eccentrics who can recognise and discard irrelevant limitations.

Branson proves this by describing, in admirably simple terms, the major technical or organisational problems and how they were overcome by the application of practical genius. The description not needlessly complicated. No reader should be left behind. It is enjoyable, for instance, to learn how air works at different heights and densities, why propeller-driven aircraft cannot go faster than a certain speed, why air travel was so expensive until the 1970s, what could have been done to save the Concorde, how jets, rockets, ramjets and scramjets work, how space travel in the near future may not look anything like we have come to expect…

Of course, the closer the book gets to the present, the more of Branson there is. He does own the airline Virgin Atlantic, after all, and his companies are working on a cheap and reliable passenger spacecraft. And he has three decades of air adventuring on his own CV.

He also knew some pioneers personally. The first two in the book are Douglas Bader, the legendary Second World War fighter pilot, and Steve Fossett, the millionaire who accomplished the first solo round-the-world non-stop balloon flight. The legless Bader used to flirt with Branson’s aunt, and Fossett was a friend. Both these men, and other aviators in history, would know just why Branson’s first experience of flying was such a terror — when you’re in the air, all technology notwithstanding, you’re on your own.

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