“Around the world in 80 hours.” The happy marketing slogan affixed to Steve Fossett’s attempt to set a nonstop, around-the-world solo flight record makes it sound like something of a nostalgic lark: Hints of Jules Verne, the golden age of global adventure. And indeed, if all goes well, sometime later this year Fossett will complete a circumnavigation of the globe, pass over America’s Pacific shore, point his wide, spindly airplane—called the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer—over the Rocky Mountains, and line up on the same Midwestern runway he left 21,000 miles and 80 hours before. Awake for essentially the entire flight, he will have been battered by turbulence and the mental strain of relentless engine monitoring, fuel management, weather analysis and navigation—to say nothing of actual flying.
That’s if things go well. If things do not go well, Fossett’s flight will end in a horrific fireball during the incredibly dangerous takeoff of the fuel-pregnant, exquisitely stressed aircraft. Or his distinctly sci-fi-looking airplane—it has a trimaran-like configuration with a single jet engine poised inches above the cockpit’s tiny bubble canopy—will disintegrate in turbulence or high-G emergency maneuvering. Or Fossett, despite experience and training, will simply fall asleep. “If he becomes incapacitated—if he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up—there will be an accident,” says Burt Rutan, the famed aerospace designer who created GlobalFlyer. “There’s no autoland capability and no way of controlling the airplane from outside the cockpit.”
This is, in other words, a delightfully dangerous undertaking. The airplane is a flying fuel tank that must remain controllable in buffeting winds at high altitude while it burns through 82 percent of its weight. But Fossett is confident. For starters, the 59-year-old businessman, who made his fortune as an investment banker and his fame as an adventurer, has done this kind of thing before. His nautical and aviation records include the first nonstop solo flight around the world in a balloon, which he achieved in 2002 on his sixth try. (He is also currently shooting for a glider altitude record of 62,000 feet, and on Nov 14 in Argentina set a glider distance record of 1,244 miles.) His partner in adventure, Sir Richard Branson, the swashbuckling founder, CEO and chairman of project-sponsor Virgin Atlantic, is an old ballooning buddy with world records of his own—and will serve as Fossett’s reserve pilot. And Fossett can place a lot of faith in his aircraft and the man who designed it: After all, Burt Rutan built the historic, prop-driven Voyager airplane, which his brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeana Yeager flew on a nine-day around-the-world unrefueled flight in 1986.
THE TECHNOLOGY. GlobalFlyer represents a bigger technical challenge than even Voyager did. The latter airplane, which now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, flew with two piston engines, carried 7,000 pounds of fuel, and had two pilots. GlobalFlyer will sprint where Voyager strolled, and its design pushes weight-reduction and structural-integrity technology to the absolute limits. (The fuel tanks in the twin outboard booms are informally referred to as watermelons—not the most reassuring analogy.) With 18,000 pounds of military jet fuel onboard, takeoff will be a white-knuckle affair; toward the end of the flight, with most of the fuel spent, the airplane will be feather-light and especially susceptible to turbulence.