Steve Fossett – Daredevil Pilot

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

Steve Fossett is the modern version of the original daredevil pilots such as Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone of the Wright Brothers exhibition team that was formed in 1910. They take death-defying risks to become the pilot that flies the highest, fastest and farthest.

Hoxsey and Johnstone played the odds of death and lost. Fossett has taken great risks and so far has beaten the odds. He is one of the Millennial Pioneers who create a cutting edge for aviation and aerospace in the new millennial century. This is the story of his latest great adventure.

His objective was to establish a new world record for the longest nonstop, unrefueled flight. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager piloting the Scaled Composites Voyager aircraft in 1986 held the current record.

Stretching the limits is nothing new for the 61-year old millionaire native of Tennessee. He has swum the English Channel, driven in the 24 Hours Le Mans auto race and set more than 20 speed sailing world records. He also has set flying records for the fastest trips across the Atlantic and around the globe. In 2002 he became the first person to circle the world alone in a balloon.

The planned itinerary for his latest adventure of flight was to take off from the Kennedy Space Center, with the GlobalFlyer, a lightweight experimental airplane, and circle the globe. The GlobalFlyer is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic and was built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

Continuing the journey, It will cross the Atlantic Ocean a second time and land in Kent, England. If successful, it would be the first time that a major aviation distance record ended in England since Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel in 1909.

The flight almost didn’t get off the ground on Feb. 8, 2006. The airplane almost ran out of runway. The Kennedy runway is 15,000 -ft long and he had to use almost all of it with his 9-ton JP-4 fuel load.

Seconds from disaster, Fossett said that he “had to really pull on the stick with all his might to get it off the ground.” It would have meant instant death with his large fuel load if he had run out of runway and crashed into a large ditch at the end of the runway.

To make matters worse, he hit two birds a few seconds after rotation. The birds were later found to be 30-oz black breasted plovers with 12-inch wingspans. Fortunately, they did no damage to the GlobalFlyer.

But another problem emerged. The ventilation system malfunctioned. The temperature rapidly rose in the claustrophobic refrigerator size cockpit. The temperature rose to 130F and the instruments ceased to work in the hot environment. He was able to reduce the temperature. If he had not, he would have had to return to Kennedy or ditch in the ocean.

If all these problems weren’t enough, several hours into the trip it was discovered that during the climb on takeoff some 750 pounds of precious fuel had vented out of the aircraft. This is equivalent of about 1,000 miles of range.

Favorable winds would now be most important to succeed in breaking the distance record. During the first part of the flight Foster was able was able to find favorable easterly jetstreams. When he arrived over India he ran into unexpected turbulence that that so severe that he put on his parachute and oxygen mask in case the airplane broke apart.

Foster originally wanted to start his journey several days earlier for better weather, but China denied him overflight rights until after the Chinese New Year.

Fortunately, he was able to fly on and reach Florida completing one swing around the world and continue on his way to England. At this point his worry was did he had enough fuel to get there?

His worry would soon change when another more serious problem occurred. The generator failure light illuminated while flying over the border between Wales and England. With no generator power, the battery that powers the systems of the airplane lost voltage and would have a life of only 25 minutes.

Fossett declared an emergency and requested directions to the nearest airfield. He chose Bournemouth International Airport some 100 miles closer than Kent, his original destination.

His rapid descent had an unexpected side effect of overwhelming the defrost system and fogged over the canopy so that constant wiping was required just to see. Luckily he had landed at Bournemouth before so he had some familiarity with the airport. He landed successfully but blew two tires in the process.

He had flown 26,389 miles in about 76 hours. It was a little short of his goal but it beat the existing record of 24,987 miles for a nonstop flight set in 1986.

He had little sleep during the flight but did take a few “power naps” of less than 10 minutes each. For food, he consumed milkshakes.

If the generator failure had occurred a couple hours earlier, the chances are he would have had to bail out or ditch into the ocean.

He success took a superhuman effort with a lot of luck thrown in. Fossett admitted, “I was really lucky to make it here today, there was a lot going on.”

The Global Flyer will eventually be displayed in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udar-Hazy Center.

References: New York Times, Feb. 12, 2006; Washington Post, March 17, 2006; Aviation Week and Space Technology, Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, 2006.

Previous post:

Next post: