'I kept screaming at Branson to pull the lever...

September 20, 1998
Suzanne Fisher
The Independent

AS THE plane began climbing over the Pyrenees, the rain got worse and the clouds got darker and before long, we were being tossed around in a storm cloud. People were throwing up. After flying through the middle of the thunderstorm for 45 minutes, it then decided to spew us out and we landed in San Sebastian."

Mike Oldfield later discovered that all commercial flights in the north of Spain had been cancelled at the time. The pilot, who had passed his flying exam just that week, had misinterpreted the weather forecast. This near- death experience, the inspiration behind Oldfield's Five Miles Out, was even more nightmarish for him because he suffers from a combination of claustrophobia, agoraphobia and vertigo.

"I really thought I was going to die. It certainly put me off flying in small planes!" Small planes, perhaps, but not hot-air balloons. Oldfield was signed up with Virgin at the time and agreed to go hot air ballooning with Richard Branson only because he had assured him that they would remain low in the sky.

"We were setting up the balloons right next to Didcot Power Station, which has enormous chimneys. Just as we were stepping into our balloon, a friend of Branson's in the next balloon issued a challenge that he would beat Branson to Oxford.

Branson filled the balloon full of gas and suddenly we shot up and were hanging right over the middle of one of the chimneys. All my phobias returned, and we couldn't go down because we would have landed inside the chimney. As we were hanging there, the heat discharged from one of the chimneys pushed us up to around 10,000ft, and I was worried about my breathing because of the low oxygen levels at that altitude."

While Branson kept pumping the balloon up so that they would gain height and go faster, Oldfield worried about running out of gas.

"After an hour of this hell, the balloon started descending towards Oxford. We plummeted into a car park, shot up again and landed on the top of a bakery. I was screaming at him to pull the lever which lets air out of the balloon. Police and fire engines arrived and hauled us down from the balloon with ladders. I was trembling like a leaf. Branson was, of course, grinning."

Despite his traumatic travelling adventures and phobias, Oldfield loves to travel so much that he keeps his passport tucked in his jacket at all times. "During a tour in Germany, a bag which was holding my passport and the band's tour money was stolen from under my chair while I was eating in a restaurant. Now I carry my passport with me all the time. I am comforted when I feel it in my jacket because I know that, on a whim, I can head for the airport and go anywhere."

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