Press launch of a lifetime

Ray recalls Richard Branson's epic hospitality

Twenty-five years have passed since a group of ambitious enthusiasts led by Richard Branson made an attempt at breaking the record for crossing the Atlantic under power.

The first effort unfortunately failed when Virgin Atlantic Challenger sank with the end virtually in sight. Sometime later their new boat, Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, did indeed succeed with a time just eclipsing the record set for a west to east crossing by the American liner United States in 1952.

The story has been well documented. Dag Pike, the navigator aboard Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, recently recaptured the crew’s experiences in Motor Boat & Yachting. But as far as I can remember no one has ever told the story of the press launch before the crew set foot aboard the proposed record breaker.

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In my 50 years of journalistic experience it must have been the press launch to end all press launches. Understandably it had to be connected with an aeroplane, a Virgin Atlantic aeroplane in particular, which on this occasion was a Boeing 747 jumbo.

Almost 100 journalists of all shapes and sizes from a wide variety of media arrived at Gatwick Airport, less for the the proposed record attempt and more because it involved Richard Branson, who was far more newsworthy.

Grasping our tickets the press mob climbed aboard what could only be described as a luxurious Virgin Atlantic aircraft staffed by a large number of attractive company air hostesses all trying their best to look after a most unusual collection of passengers.

So far none of us had any idea where we were heading, most hoping for lunch in some exotic venue. Orders came to sit down and strap in. This done we finally took off heading in a westerly direction. Now for the hospitality we were all hoping for. Wine in abundance began flowing together with an array of top-class nibbles.

The cabin itself had been decorated with streamers and balloons which all added to the party atmosphere. None of us were tied to our seats, so people began wandering around meeting up with old acquaintances representing other titles and once the drink began taking effect the airliner’s interior took on the appearance of a 1920s nightclub cartoon depicting streamers, balloons, cigars, champagne and tipsy partygoers minus top hats and monocles.

This was before the later spate of hijacking. Security as regards cockpit and crew was far more lax and some, headed by Cowes-Torquay-Cowes doyen Tim Powell – who later ran the London base for the record attempt – all but took over from the pilot.

By now we were flying over the sea and slowly losing altitude. Looking out of the window I began seeing the surface in full detail but few others aboard appeared to notice or show any interest as by now the drink and food was in full flood. I suddenly remembered reports of similar lighthearted adventures that went badly wrong but now with Tim Powell obviously in charge, “What the hell!”

Then came an announcement: “We are heading for the Bishop Rock lighthouse which will mark the finishing point of the forthcoming Atlantic record.” I cannot remember if anyone mentioned the Blue Riband because as a non-fare-paying passenger vessel, Virgin Atlantic Challenger would not comply under the rules.

Non-seated revellers rushed to the port side of the plane and leaned over those seated to peer out as the plane began heeling in a tight circle. Almost level was the balcony at the top of the lighthouse complete with a keeper frantically waving. More worrying, I could now actually see the shadow of our 747 on the surface below.

I was later told that bringing a commercial airliner down to this level sets off a landing warning telling the pilot to lower the undercarriage. But wheels down sent a visual message to the lighthouse keeper that he was seeing a transatlantic airliner in distress.

We were not very far from the short landing strip on the Scilly Isles where our low approach was causing an almighty panic but we simply flew over slowly, increasing in altitude as the undercarriage lifted back in the wings.
Within 30 minutes or so we arrived back at Gatwick with most guests disembarking with growing hangovers. They say that in order to achieve good exposure all press launches should be designed to impress. In my opinion the Virgin launch was one that left a lasting impression…


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