Reaching for the skies

If you decide to
tackle an engineering challenge or to venture into the scientific unknown as an
entrepreneur, you’re embarking on a real adventure – difficult, fascinating,
often risky. Sometimes you and your team might feel quite alone, while at
others you might choose to partner with friends or even your competitors. It’s
important to remember that we all learn from and build on others’
accomplishments – as I’ve written before, an entrepreneur does not succeed

This idea was driven
home to me a year ago, when one of my publishers came to visit me on Necker
Island, which is in the British Virgin Islands. I had imagined his new book
idea would be another project based on my business experiences, but he said,
“There’s this great passage in your autobiography where you nearly get yourself

Ah, I thought, that’s
more like it. “Really. Which one? They were quite a few!”

“You remember: In the
mid-1970s, a chap called Richard Ellis got you to try out his early form of
hang glider.”

I remembered, all
right. The contraption was called a Pterodactyl. I took off in it by mistake
and nearly killed myself. “You know, a few days later Richard was dead, too.”

“So,” he said, “Ellis
died, and you escaped only by the skin of your teeth. What we were wondering
was, what on earth made either of you want to take those kinds of risks?”

Why? Well, let’s not
forget that Richard Ellis was one of the inventors of the Pterodactyl Ascender
series of hang gliders. A few years after the crash, Jack Peterson Jr. flew a
Pterodactyl across the continental United States in 120-mile hops. His machine
now hangs in the Smithsonian – a stone’s throw away from SpaceShipOne, the
first private manned space vehicle, which was designed by Burt Rutan.

“Well …” I began
slowly, not exactly happy with where this conversation was going, “there was
the thrill, obviously. And then there was the whole sponsorship thing. Ellis
wanted me to champion this new form of flying that he was introducing to the
U.K. from America. I’ve always loved the idea of flying and I thought: maybe I
can use this to publicize what I do.”

The more I talked,
the more connections I uncovered. “You know hang glider wings are based on a
design that was supposed to bring NASA’s Mercury capsules down to Earth? This
of course ties in with what we’re doing with Burt Rutan at Virgin Galactic.
Re-entry is the toughest recurring challenge for any space vehicle, and …” I
stopped. The publisher was grinning.

Soon we had a book,
which I called “Reach for the Skies” in homage to my childhood hero, British
flying ace Douglas Bader. It’s about flight. More than that, it’s about the
people behind the inventions and accomplishments.

If you’re considering
a project that involves technical challenges, remember that long before
innovators have the right materials at hand, we already know how to achieve our
dreams. Look at the history of flight: the workings of intercontinental air
travel were being hashed out by textile engineers John Stringfellow and William
Henson nearly 60 years before the first airplane flight.

Then, the process of
engineering those materials will require teamwork, self-reliance and
bucket-loads of goodwill. To achieve a nonstop flight between London and Paris,
Charles Lindberg’s team adopted working methods that wouldn’t look out of place
in Rutan’s factory in the Mojave Desert, where construction of the spaceship
Virgin Enterprise is nearing completion.

Throughout my career,
I myself have been deeply involved in projects that have pushed the envelope of
manned flight. While I am known for drawing attention to Virgin, none of our
experiments were just mere publicity “stunts”; they were steps in our research
and development process. Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand and I crossed the
Atlantic in a hot-air balloon in 1987 and the Pacific in 1991, setting records
that still stand. The envelopes of those balloons were made of materials as
radical then as Rutan’s space-faring composites are today.

Once you’ve solved
all those engineering challenges, you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to
turn your hard work into money. Drawing attention to your new idea or invention
helps, but you’ll need a business plan.

The working method
I’ve described, with its components of engineering, adventure, celebrity and
business, was not invented by the Virgin team, though it has carried me and my
friends from a basement off London’s Edgware Road to the edges of outer space.
This approach drew admiration, criticism and incredulity long before Queen
Victoria’s Parliament rang with laughter at the preposterous idea of a world
airline; long before startled peasants took pitchforks to Jacques Charles’ gas
balloon in 1783. It takes a very long time to build a business. At Virgin, my
team and I build for the future. And the future’s wild.

Adapted from “Reach
for the Skies,” by
Sir Richard Branson, forthcoming in June from Virgin Books.
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin
Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog
You can follow him on Twitter at
To learn more about the Virgin Group:

If you’re considering
a project that involves technical challenges, remember that long before
innovators have the right materials at hand, we already know how to achieve our

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