A Knight’s Tale


1984 saw the ultimate business gamble when Branson decided to establish an airline, perhaps to indulge his constant fascination with adventure and travel. On June 22 of that year, Virgin Atlantic Airways launched its first flight between London’s Gatwick Airport and Newark. Although it seemed an unlikely transition from the music business, the idea of Virgin Atlantic as a cheeky, fun airline to take across the Atlantic appealed to passengers in both the U.K. and U.S. Virgin Atlantic offered a fresh new Upper Class concept with large, fully reclining beds and a common bar, all set against a fresh design that its conservative airline counterparts lacked. Having overcome a severe rivalry with fellow U.K.-based airline British Airways and a slump in business in the 1990s, Virgin Atlantic now flies more than six million passengers per year to 30 destinations. Offshoots such as Virgin America (which is based out of San Francisco), Virgin Blue, and V Australia make Virgin one of the most diverse and recognizable airline brands in the world. Never afraid of failure and invigorated by the success of diversification, Branson has since launched more than 360 companies, including the wildly successful Virgin Mobile. When asked which Virgin brand people may know least about, Branson explains, “Virgin Aquatic is a new company where we’re trying to build submarines to explore the lower depths of the ocean. We’re trying to go 35,000 feet under the ocean, which hasn’t been done before, because there are thousands of species down there that are unexplored.”

This is evidence of Branson’s insatiable lust for adventure, one that has often led to injury and even near-death experiences. In fact, he arrived at Haute Living’s cover shoot in Los Angeles with an injured shoulder (something about an ATV misadventure). It all began in 1986, when, after one failed attempt (resulting in a dramatic ocean rescue by helicopter), Branson beat the record for fastest Atlantic crossing by two hours. He then proceeded to cross first the Atlantic and then the Pacific in a hot air balloon that broke a world record by being the largest hot air balloon ever built. “I had a relative who was the first to try to get to the Antarctic, Captain Scott,” Branson recalls, explaining the inspiration for his daredevil spirit. “My parents used to recount stories of him, he was quite a famous figure in English history. I also used to know Douglas Bader, a famous Second World War fighter pilot who fought with no legs. There is something about the British, like [these men and] Francis Drake; they love to achieve things that others say are impossible. I love trying to conquer new barriers. I love to see what I’m capable of.” Much to his wife’s dismay, the adventurous gene is ever-present in Branson’s two children. Accompanied by an elite group of helmsmen, the Branson trio set out to complete the fastest Atlantic crossing by sailboat. They were unsuccessful in their attempt, but as Branson’s son Sam says, “It wouldn’t be as rewarding if it was easy to break a world record.” Both Sam and his sister Holly are ready to make their second, hopefully successful, crossing.

Branson’s next business adventure is aptly entitled Virgin Galactic. It will invite an elite group of space tourists (or “astronauts” as they like to call themselves) who are willing to foot the $200,000 bill of flying into space to enjoy weightlessness and a once-in-a-lifetime view of the earth from suborbital space. The mother ship, named for Branson’s own mother, will launch 100 pioneering astronauts, including Eve Branson, set to be the world’s oldest astronaut. Asked what part of the experience she most looks forward to, Eve says with a hearty laugh, “Wearing a space suit. That’s going to be the most exciting part for a woman!” However, this latest feather in the Virgin cap did not instantly sit well with many. Skeptics questioned the necessity and practicality of this endeavor and were most concerned about its environmental repercussions. In typical form, Branson was ready with an answer. “When a Nasa spaceship takes off, the energy it puts out could power New York for a week but, 40 years later, if you’re going to build a spaceship, you’ve got to come up with all the modern technologies to make sure it’s a green spaceship. The Virgin Fuels team has actually created a fuel that can put this spaceship into space with almost no CO2 emissions at all….What we are talking about is enabling people to have the magnificence of exploring space without any detrimental environmental benefit,” he explained to naysayers, proving with his infallible charm that he is always thinking on a global scale.