Fossettt Flies GlobalFlyer in Tradition of Wrights

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Ever since the Wright brothers designed an airplane in Dayton that flew at Kitty Hawk, mankind has been fascinated with defying gravity and setting new records in the air.

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, 60, is one of these people. On Thursday, March 3, 2005, he became the first person to fly around the world solo without stopping or refueling, landing in Salina, Kansas after a 67-hour, 23,000-mile trip.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and longtime friend and fellow adventurer, was the primary sponsor of the adventure. The $1.5 million airplane, Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, was specifically designed for this record-breaking flight. It was designed by Burt Rutan and built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites Company. Rutan built SpaceShipOne, the first private craft to fly into space.

The GlobalFlyer is no ordinary plane. It consists of three hulls attached to a wing that measures more than half the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Its wingspan is 114 feet with a wing area of 400-feet squared. Its length is 44.1 feet and has 7 feet of pressurized space for the pilot in a cigar-shaped cabin.

When all 13 fuel tanks in the hulls and wing are filled with JP-4 aviation fuel, the maximum takeoff weight is 22,000 pounds. The fuel load constitutes 83% of the total weight. It has a single engine turbofan airplane sitting atop of the cockpit.

It took most of the 12,300 feet of the runway at Salina to get off the ground.

With a lift-to-drag ratio of about 37, the craft has the performance of a sailplane while flying. Drogue chutes are deployed when landing to provide a reasonable approach angle for the low-drag craft.

The flight had some anxious moments. Within an hour or so of takeoff, for some mysterious reason, 15% of the precious fuel vanished. The loss of the fuel raised concern that Foster might not have enough fuel to complete the trip. A “go-no go” decision would have to be made at Hawaii since the plane flying East around the globe had Hawaii as the last landing opportunity before reaching California.

Fortunately, there were stronger-than-expected tailwinds that gave Foster confidence to decide to say, “let’s go for it.” He crossed the California coastline on Thursday morning and had enough fuel remaining to make it to Salina, Kansas.

The craft cruises 285 mph at a high altitude of 45,000 feet, 12,000 feet higher than a typical jetliner. That enables it to catch the high altitude jet stream that flows eastward around the globe. A favorable jet stream is crucial to save fuel.

He did wear a parachute in the event of the worst case scenario that of ditching the airplane. Also, the GlobalFlyer was an excellent glider and could glide up to 200 miles without fuel before having to land.

Another problem that occurred early in the flight was with a faulty GPS navigational aid. The flight would have had to be discontinued if the GPS had failed. Fortunately the flight team was able to solve the problem.

Flight pioneers since the Wright brothers have put both their money and their lives at stake to surpass every speed and distance there was. The first successful flight around the world occurred in 1924, 21 years after the Wrights’ first flight. It was flown by two U.S. Army Douglas single engine open-cockpit World Cruisers, each with a crew of two. The flight took 175 days to cover 26,345 miles, stopping in 29 countries along the way for fueling and maintenance.

Aviation pioneer Wiley Post made the first solo global trip in 1933. He made seven stops along the way.

The first nonstop global flight without refueling was made in 1986 with a propeller driven airplane, the Voyager, by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan. Dick is the brother of GlobalFlyer and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan.

Steve Foster is an unusual person who thrives on risk taking and has pursued other exploits and records besides flying in airplanes. These include swimming the English Channel, setting 21 speed records for sailing, participating in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, driving twice in the 24 hours Le Mans Car Race, and setting a ballooning record flying solo round-the-world in 2002.

Although he lives life on the edge, he is not foolhardy. Like the Wright brothers, the risks he takes are carefully calculated down to the minutest detail.

He is able to do these things financially because he has made millions as an investment executive in the high risk trading area of commodities and options.

Why did he want to be the first to fly nonstop around the world? He said, “That was something I wanted to do for a long time, a major ambition. I do these things because I want to do them for my self-esteem and my personal satisfaction.” I can hear Wilbur saying much the same thing.

After the flight he added, “Believe me, its great to be back on the ground. That was a difficult trip. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

He noted sleep deprivation was one issue as was as the unappealing diet of 12 diet milkshakes.

What’s in the future for Steve Fossett? He didn’t say except that he has three projects in planning right now. We may never know what they were.

Unfortunately, thirteen months after he mysterious disappeared on a fight taken on Sept. 3, 2007, over the Sierra Nevada mountains, his airplane and remains were found. Apparently he had flown his Bellanca Super Decathlon straight into a mountain on a cloudy day.

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