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Interview with
Michael Kendrick, Project Manager

'I regard a balloon like this as an emergency from the moment it's taken off.'

Kendrick 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 Project Director?

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 the ground?

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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 rescue.

NOVA: When they actually land, can you describe more specifically what you will have to do in commandeering their rescue?

via RealAudio:
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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 altitudes.

NOVA: How does he get that information? Do they have satellite images?

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 trick.

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?

via RealAudio:
14.4 | 28.8 | ISDN
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 'round.

NOVA: Great. Thank you.

KENDRICK: Pleasure.

Interviews: Ackroyd | Branson | Erickson | Eversfield | Kendrick

Photos: Aaron Strong

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