NOVA: Michael, can you tell us what your position is on this project
and where you fit into the scheme of things?
KENDRICK: Well, as the Managing Director of all the Virgins' Lighter
than Air activity involving balloons and air ships, I get seconded into running
these projects, so I'm the Project Director of Team Global Challenge.
NOVA: For a project of this magnitude, what does this mean you do as
KENDRICK: A project like this involves pulling in many different skills
from many different nations so, on the one hand, you have the technology and
the equipment necessary to fly around the world and, of course Per is probably
the best capable person in the world to do that.
Then you have the whole logistics of the rest of the teams, the launch crews,
which Per is heavily involved in as well, the management teams involving things
like accommodation of all 150 people involved in this, a choice of launch site,
which is critical and dependent on the weather. And so on that side, you've
got a complete weather scenario to look at by employing the leading consultants
from around the world to advise on what is a peculiar type of project anyway.
The other aspects, apart from the obvious ones like budgetary control, the
other aspect is making sure that the sponsors get the kind of publicity they
need out of it. And more importantly, I think, reviewing the safety side of
the project as we go along from day to day. And then, once the balloon is
launched, of course, we get into a whole new scenario of communications and
search and rescue.
NOVA: Let's go to launch day—as soon as they launch, what happens on
KENDRICK: Well, as soon as they're launched, the first thing that we
have to worry about is their initial climb to altitude. This is a particularly
critical part of the flight, of course. Once we're clear that we're in for a
long duration flight, in other words that we don't have an immediate systems
failure, once they get to altitude, then the immediate requirement is to move
to the control room in London, where the whole flight will be monitored 24
hours a day.
This involves moving people from the launch site to that, but we will also
need to open that control room twelve hours before launch so that we don't lose
any communication with the capsule. So I will be scrambling, myself, off the
Moroccan desert as soon as I know that the flight is destined to become more
than a 24-hour flight. Because the families of the crew will be watching the
launch, our other concern is to get those families back into London where they
live so that we can keep in regular touch with them. So for that four or five
hours after they launch, it's quite a nerve wracking thing because we are going
to be out of touch and the families are going to be out of touch with the crews
for that long. That's a very important thing that you need to consider.
NOVA: When you're in the Control Center, exactly what information will
you be able to glean, besides actually speaking to them by voice? What exactly
will you be monitoring?
KENDRICK: We'll be monitoring the balloon's performance in terms of
efficiency; we'll be looking for gas leaks and fuel efficiency, monitoring
that. We have to run updates, which we'll be doing every two hours, on the
physical performance of the balloon. We'll be much happier when we've got a
full 48 hours under our belt when we can make some evaluations that actually
mean something. But for the entire flight, we'll be taking checks on the
balloon, fuel, radio procedure, and, of course, the search and rescue. We'll
also be monitoring the pilots' health, their ability; you know, it's possible
to get hypoxic in this situation. It happened on the Pacific although no one
in the capsule likes to admit it but one member of the crew did get hypoxic, in
my view, anyway. We have to watch for that kind of thing. We have to make
sure that the regime of someone being asleep all the time is controlled
properly and that two are kept awake all the time. We have to continually
update the weather so that we know what's happening and we can advise the crew
of what's happening on the weather even though they should have their own
updates direct from the fax machine that's in the capsule. We will need to
check that they've got that. We'll be making decisions of what altitude to go
based on the weather data that comes in.
At the same time, we'll be running a search and rescue operation that will
take the form of what we call a moving haven. I regard a balloon like this as
an emergency from the moment it's taken off. These balloons are very
unpredictable and it's a very dangerous project so we shall eschew that they
are going to need rescuing from anywhere directly below them. In order to do
that, we will be alerting the search and rescue agencies downwind of the
balloons and as they pass over that search and rescue territory, that agency
territory, we'll be alerting the next one so we'll have an active search and
rescue program in front of them and behind them. And that will carry on all
the way around the world, so they'll be bracketed, if you like, with search and
NOVA: When they actually land, can you describe more specifically what
you will have to do in commandeering their rescue?
KENDRICK: The landing scenario is a little complex and a little
difficult to answer because it rather depends on where they're going to land
and in what conditions. If the landing is actually a successful flight, then
it will be a controlled landing and, of course, it will be in daylight. The
problems will really come, and this is the most probable scenario, they have to
land because of some failure of the project. I can't stress too much of this
extremely complex project and the odds of succeeding must be against us. It's
not in one's favor to do this.
If any crew can do it, I'm sure that we've got the right crew and the right
equipment but it's still awfully difficult to allow in the vagaries of weather,
mechanical flaws, technical problems, then you get into a situation of where—and this is more probable—that they'll be coming down because they have to.
A lot of things have to be put into play then. And the first thing—let's
assume that it's night—we would do our very best to make sure that they
stayed in the air for a daylight landing for obvious reasons because it's
easier to land the balloon and because it's easier to find them when they've
landed. Of course they've got great oceans to cross as well. So the nightmare
scenario is that we have some sort of technical failure that brings them down
in the sea.
Now the shipping over the Atlantic is fairly regular and we think there's a
pretty good chance of getting them out of there, provided they land in the
daylight. The Pacific is another area, it's a different matter altogether
because the shipping is irregular, it's a big ocean and frankly, the chances of
them surviving a Pacific landing at night are very small in my view. We've
discussed this with the crew and they understand and we hope we will have
enough notice of that to get somebody with them. But when we thought they were
going to land in the Pacific, when they crossed the Pacific, the nearest boat
was 72 hours away; that's the nearest we could get to them. And of course we'd
all seen, before they flew the Pacific, a Japanese pilot try and fly the
Pacific before them but he landed 240 miles off the coast and he still died.
So, it's not a question of how far into the Pacific they go. Once they're more
than a couple of hundred miles out, you can't get them back except by regular
shipping. So if they were coming down or if we knew that they had a problem
and they could only stay in the sky, let's say, another thirty hours, then we
would have to elect to get them down in daylight hours but before the night
envelope came. And again, if they were getting closer and closer to some
shipping because we'll know where every ship in both oceans are—we'll know
exactly where they are—so our job would be to advise them to stay in the air
as long as possible, to fly into the night and back into the daylight envelope
and put them down at the closest point which we think we can get them. So it's
a very difficult question to answer.
NOVA: Are you prepared for them to fly on a more northern trajectory
into Arctic conditions like they did in their trans-Pacific flight?
KENDRICK: The problem with the sub-tropical jet is that it tends to
migrate if you get too far north of the jet. It tends to migrate north and we
hoped, of course, we need to keep them south of the Himalayas from Morocco to
India, but south of the Himalayas in order to pick up the trans-Pacific jet.
And in an ideal scenario, we wouldn't go far enough north, but of course once
you then start crossing the Americas, you can't possibly predict what the
weather's going to be when you take off. So you have to build these net
patterns up as the flight progresses. So when they cross America, we no longer
know until two or three days, until they've already landed, in fact, what's
going to happen when they get to America. And so we're going to have to steer
them; if the jet is going north, we will tend to do an altitude excursion down
to bounce the low-level pressure systems to get south. We'd rather be going
south across America, but not too far south because that could put them in
another jet that takes them into the south Pacific, which is impossible to get
to them as well. Honolulu is about the only place where you can organize a
search and rescue from and they could be thousands of miles from there. So
when they cross America, there's a good chance that they will be migrating
north and they have to be prepared for that. So, obviously, Arctic survival is
very important. We think, there's a possibility that, if they go north, that
we can get them back in terms of back on course during the flight, by changing
altitudes and coming south past Greenland and making the Atlantic crossing
there, but it's a complex issue.
NOVA: I think this is something that people are very interested in, the
fact that they would have to change altitudes in order to catch some lower
local wind patterns to insert themselves back into the jet somewhere else. Tell
us a little bit more about the meteorology. Will you have a meteorologist in
the control center?
KENDRICK: The meteorologist is one of the acknowledged experts on
balloon flights and related meteorology. He's a very clever chap. He'll be
consulting with every piece of information he can as we go along. And of
course he will be advising them of what altitude the winds are at varying
NOVA: How does he get that information? Do they have satellite
KENDRICK: That information will come from all the weather satellites
around the world. And the trick is, of course, to get that information, which
is actual information. We know what the winds are doing. But then to be able
to forecast the movement of that weather system as we go along, that's the
NOVA: What is the likelihood of success this year? Some people say
that because this is like space travel, it takes years and years. Do you think
that you have a better chance this year?
KENDRICK: Oh yes, there's no doubt that on our second attempt, we stand
a higher chance. At Virgin, we seem to do everything the second time. We had
two attempts at the Atlantic, two attempts at the Pacific and, I'm sure that
we're capable of launching this balloon with the help of people like Bruce
Erikson, providing we get the weather. And if we get the weather, I'm quite
confident we'll have a long duration within flight. I'm not confident that
we'll get around the world because I think it would be silly. We need to plan
for the possibilities of not getting around.
NOVA: If you don't actually successfully circumnavigate the globe, but
do break a duration record, will this project come back again in the upcoming
years to continue?
KENDRICK: It depends how the crews regard it. I think somebody will
fly around the world in a balloon and I hope it's Richard, Per, and Rory. They
are the most capable people, in my view, of flying around the world and they've
been so dedicated to it, I'd like to see them do it.
I don't think I will regard the flight as a failure if we break all duration
records. I think it will be a major success. I'm sure the crews will regard
it as somewhat of a failure unless they get 'round. But we can't try and steer
them off that because it's that kind of determination that will get them