Richard Branson is on the line to discuss Don’t Look Down.
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That’s a riveting new documentary about the world records the billionaire adventurer earned in 1987 and 1991, respectively, for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a hot-air balloon. His publicity team asked if I could limit my questions to the film, which we’ll get to in a minute.
But come on. This is Sir Richard Branson, knighted in 1999 for “services to entrepreneurship.” This is the founder of the Virgin Group, a powerhouse global brand and giant octopus of more than 100 companies with tentacles in the travel, entertainment, lifestyle, media, financial and telecom sectors.
From the start, Virgin was always about thinking big.
So here we are. Between Brexit, in Branson’s homeland of England, and now the triumph of Donald Trump, it feels like the free world is thinking small. Xenophobia, isolationism, protectionism, nationalism — how might the captains of industry deal with a world that is shrinking with fear and convulsing with resentment?
“I think business leaders have to offset political darkness,” says Branson. “Here in America, we have a president who has said he doesn’t believe in global warming and is going to rip up COP21 (the Paris Agreement). We have a vice-president who thinks that gay people can be given electric shock treatment or be converted back into straight people.”
Branson sighs and twists the lens.
“I think there are plenty of great entrepreneurs in America. I think there are plenty of great entrepreneurs in Great Britain. And we’ve got to get out there and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean energy sector, and make sure that we stick to the plan for a carbon-neutral world by 2050 and get on with it.”
Trump fans are jubilant. Those who believe Trump is an unhinged con man flanked by vengeful extremists are horrified. This second group has flooded the streets across America, protesting the perceived trajectory of their country.
It’s a reaction Branson understands.
“We need to rally people,” he says. “If some of these more foolish policies start coming in, in America, business leaders may need to get out there on the streets like we did against the Vietnam War many, many years ago. And get the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the States.”
Trump won on a wilfully cynical message of Us versus Them.
Now it’s time, says Branson, to double down on the We.
“As business leaders, we need all these people who are working in America to keep their jobs. You’ve got full employment in America. We don’t want people being rounded up like happened in the Nazi time in Germany and sent home.
“These people are valuable members of our companies, and we have no wish to see people grab them and take them away from us. We want the gay community to be respected. It’s up to us as business leaders to stand up for their rights. And so it goes on.”
And so it goes on . . . where?
“The jury is out,” Branson says, on what Trump might do in the White House. “It’s not looking good. But we’ll have to see if it was rhetoric or if it’s real. If it’s real, I think we have a very disturbing America.”
And on that uplifting note, let’s get to the film.
As a child, Richard Branson had a recurring dream.
He could fly. He’d flap his arms and feel weightless as he soared. The freedom was rhapsodic and, to this day, his favourite character is Peter Pan. But on a foggy afternoon in 1987, as Branson stood in the rattling capsule of a badly damaged hot air balloon high above the Irish Sea, the joy was gone.
“There was an enormous feeling of loneliness,” he recalls. “I really felt like it was the last five minutes of my life.”
This harrowing moment is one of many captured in Don’t Look Down, which uses archival and never-before-seen footage Branson shot on his Sony camcorder. Watching him and co-adventurer Per Lindstrand climb into that custom-designed monstrosity — the Virgin Atlantic Flyer was the size of a 20-storey building — is to be baffled by what seems like a death wish.
No one had crossed the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon. Indeed, five of the previous six attempts were fatal. And here was Branson, a man with two small children and a burgeoning empire, drifting up to 30,000 feet, hoping to be carried by the jet stream in a pressurized cabin, all in pursuit of a world record.
When I tell him this seems like madness, he laughs.
“Looking back on it now,” he says, “it definitely to me seems like a little bit of madness. But remember, in those days I was building businesses from scratch and the Virgin brand was not well known. So it started as a way of putting the Virgin brand on the map.
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“It soon became an all-consuming adventure, trying to prove something to myself, trying to achieve something that man or woman had not achieved before.”
The Atlantic crossing was smooth until the landing. That’s when conditions got rough. The balloon drifted off course and gouged the ground in Limavady, Northern Ireland, narrowly missing a house and power wires.
The good news: the unplanned touchdown on land earned the world record.
The bad news: the balloon was now out of control and drifting toward the water.
Lindstrand jumped into the sea. Before Branson could follow, the balloon ascended. After writing a goodbye letter to his family, he stood on the rails and prepared to parachute down. A learning disability got in the way.
“It could well be that my dyslexia saved my life that day,” Branson says. “If I hadn’t been frightened about pulling the wrong rip cord, I may not have given myself the time to realize what must sound pretty obvious now, which was that I had the balloon to use as a parachute instead.”
He piloted down toward the sea and jumped into the chop. He and Lindstrand were plucked from the frigid waters by rescuers. Four years later, they captured a second world record after becoming the first to cross the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon.
It was a time when thinking big meant anything was possible.
Don’t Look Down is now available on iTunes and video-on-demand services. email@example.com