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Billionaires race to be first in space


By Chris Isidore, CNN Business

Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur who is set to take a test flight on his Virgin Galactic spaceship to the edge of outer space on Sunday, has rarely been one to shy away from risky activities, and because of that he’s narrowly avoided being killed numerous times in his nearly 71 years.

Some of the near-death experiences were the result of bad luck, such as a stubbed toe in 1980 that nearly sent him down a deep gorge on his private island to the jagged rocks below.

Some were the result of publicity-seeking promotions, such as bungee jumping off Victoria Falls as part of a television show about him or leaping off the side of a Las Vegas casino to promote flights to the city by one of his airlines. Both stunts left him bloody and injured.

Some were just due to his sense of adventure, such as numerous balloon accidents as he attempted, and sometimes succeeded, to set records for long-distance balloon flights.

His second autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” includes an appendix entitled “75 Close Shaves,” in which he details some of the instances when his life has been at risk. Here are some of the highlights he wrote about on that list, in his own words:

1972: Survived a fishing boat sinking on honeymoon with my first wife, Kristen, off Mexico. We decided to jump off the boat and swim for shore, while the others stayed put — we were the only survivors.

1976: Flew a microlight aircraft by mistake. It was the first time I’d sat in it, I had no idea how to fly it and accidentally took off. I was pulling wires out desperately. I cut the engine and managed to crash-land into a field. My instructor died in an accident the next day.

1980 — I stubbed my toe while walking around Necker Island and suddenly fell down a gaping gorge. I managed to get my hand to the other side, and Steve Barron managed to rescue me, pulling me up before I fell to what would have been certain death on the jagged rocks below.

1985 — Sank in the [high-altitude hot-air balloon capsule] Virgin Atlantic Challenger 1 as we were crossing the Atlantic, had to be pulled out of the ocean.

1986 — Crashed a car while driving through the Alps with my family. I hit some ice and went down a small cliff and turned the car over.

1986 — On my first solo hot-air balloon flight, I crashed badly, smashing into the ground. It was a sign of things to come.

1986 — On my first time skydiving, there was one cord that opened the parachute and one that got rid of it. I pulled the wrong cord by mistake. I was falling through the air before an instructor managed to yank my spare ripcord.

1987 — On our attempt to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, the balloon’s solar heating was too good and we headed up, up and up with seemingly no way to stop it. My co-pilot Per managed to bring the balloon down just before the capsule imploded and we tumbled to our deaths.

1987 — On the same challenge I lost my co-pilot when Per jumped into the Atlantic, leaving me alone in the hot-air balloon as it disappeared back above the clouds. I was convinced I was going to die. On that memorable flight…I managed to crash the balloon into the North Sea and was rescued by helicopter.

1989 — I decided to make an entrance to my wedding with Joan, dangling from a helicopter in an all-white suit. I dropped into the shallow end of the pool by mistake, smashed my legs, and spent the whole wedding hobbling.

1991 — In a hot air balloon saw it catch fire at 30,000 feet. We managed to extinguish the fire before the balloon was destroyed. On the same balloon flight, we lost half our fuel when full tanks dropped as we jettisoned empty fuel. We thought we would run out of fuel halfway across the Pacific, before strong winds in the jet stream saved us. We crashed in the Artic — successfully completing the challenge, but crashing in minus-50-degree temperatures 3,000 miles from our planned destination in Los Angeles.

2001 — Narrowly missed stepping on a live track with 25,000 volts charged above, while inspecting our new tilting trains in England.

2004 — Agreed to do a bungee jump off Victoria Falls as part of my TV show “The Rebel Billionaire.” As I fell through the air I clipped my head on something and came back up with blood streaming down my face.

2007 — Jumped off Palms Casino in Las Vegas as we announced Virgin America’s new route to the city. After initially refusing to do the jump, I reconsidered and plunged down the building at high speed in strong winds. I smashed painfully hard into the buildings. Fortunately I hadn’t spun around, so my backside hit the wall rather than my head. It completely ripped the back of my trousers off, cut my legs and arm open and badly bruised my hand.

2016 — My life flashed before my eyes as I went over the handlebars while cycling on Virgin Gorda. My bike disappeared over the cliff, I escaped with a cracked cheek, severe cuts and bruises and a torn shoulder.

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