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Monday, April 13, 1998 Published at 19:46 GMT 20:46 UK


Branson's balloon colleague dies
image: [ Mr Branson hailed Alex Ritchie (left) as
Mr Branson hailed Alex Ritchie (left) as "one of the most professional colleagues I have worked with"

The balloonist hailed as a hero for saving the life of his co-pilot Richard Branson has died three months after being injured during a parachute jump.

[ image: Alex Ritchie climbed on top of Challenger and jettisoned fuel tanks to stop the balloon falling]
Alex Ritchie climbed on top of Challenger and jettisoned fuel tanks to stop the balloon falling
Alex Ritchie, who was 52, fell 13,000ft to land on a concrete car park in Morocco after his parachute failed to open.

Mr Branson promised to dedicate his next record bid to his friend and colleague.

After hearing of the balloonist's death, Mr Branson said: "It is never easy losing a friend even if one has had some months preparing for it.

"Alex was a brilliant friend and engineer. He has left two magnificent boys, Alasdair and Duncan, who both kept vigil at his bedside for nearly three months."

Mr Branson added: "Even after his accident early this year he said during one of his periods of consciousness that he was determined to be fit enough to attempt the balloon flight again next winter.

"Sadly, that is not to be and we have all lost one of the most professional colleagues I have ever had the pleasure to work with.

"In that spirit we are determined to attempt to fly around the world later this year in a capsule which he designed and built. If this time we succeed, it will be thanks to him.

"The trip will be dedicated to him and we will undertake the flight in his honour."

Mr Ritchie's injuries were initially thought not to be life-threatening but his condition deteriorated during treatment at London's Middlesex Hospital.

His son Duncan, who kept a vigil at his father's bed for three months, paid tribute to the adventurer's strength.

"He was a fighter and carried on fighting until the end," Duncan said. "We are all obviously extremely upset, even though we knew how ill he was."

He said his mother Jill was trying to come to terms with the news. "We are doing our best to hold up as well as we can," he added.

'One minute from death'

Mr Ritchie had risked his life before during his bids to break world records for balloon travel.

In one round-the-world attempt with the Virgin boss Richard Branson, he climbed on to the roof to throw off heavy fuel tanks as the balloon plummeted to Earth.

In complete darkness, the Virgin Challenger was falling 33ft a second and Mr Branson later said he had been only one minute from death.

[ image: The Virgin tycoon will dedicate his next voyage to his friend]
The Virgin tycoon will dedicate his next voyage to his friend
After surviving the ordeal above North Africa's Atlas mountains in January 1997, he said: "If Alex hadn't been there we would have gone into the ground.

"He saved our lives and he's the hero of the hour. He showed unbelievable bravery."

Mr Ritchie was training for another round-the-world attempt when he suffered his fatal fall.

Practising emergency sky-diving techniques above Morocco, his parachute failed to open, although he managed to partially free it by hand.


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