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Steve Fossett to Attempt Another Global Circumnavigation - 2004-01-21

Steve Fossett lives on the edge. The American adventurer currently holds over 80 maritime and flight world records.

He was the first to circle the globe in a balloon, a feat he accomplished in 2002 after six tries. Steve Fosset plans this April to attempt another first: a solo around-the-world flight on a single tank of gas.

Nearly 20 years ago in 1986 - the Voyager aircraft carried two people around the world in nine days without refueling. Steve Fossett wants to make that same journey alone, in just 80 hours.

"This is viewed as a major goal in aviation," he said. "This is an opportunity to do something new. No one has ever flown solo non-stop around the world."

Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, is the backup pilot. Both he and Steve Fossett are optimistic that the newly unveiled single-engine jet aircraft has what it takes to complete the task.

"It's built out of composites. And, it actually carries four times its weight in fuel, and hopefully it is capable of staying up in the air for 80 hours," Mr. Branson says. "It is not an easy feat. Other people have attempted it and it has cost their lives. I'm hoping that Steve stays well and remains the pilot for this particular venture.

"The Williams jet engine is highly reliable," says Mr. Fossett. "In fact that is one thing that we hope to show is the increased reliability and fuel efficiency of jet engine aircraft. We are confident that the technology is there and that we can achieve this."

Even so, Steve Fossett admits, the 36,787,559-kilometer flight is a high-risk venture.

At take-off the GlobalFlyer - which measures 35 meters from wingtip to wingtip - will carry 8,000 kilograms of fuel. And it will take approximately three hours to get to its cruising altitude of 14,000 meters - three times higher than a commercial airliner flies.

"Oh, yes. There is a lot of danger," he said. "In fact right at the start of the flight. This will be the first time that this airplane has ever flown at its full weight and that will be the demonstration that the plane can operate at the edge of its envelope. So, there is risk of structural failure at takeoff if we have gotten the engineering wrong, and risk of structural failure if I hit turbulence on the climb up."

Steve Fossett will be squeezed into a tiny 2.1-meter-long pressurized cockpit mounted between the two wings. From that position he must stay awake around the clock for 80 hours.

"I have to stay aware for the entire period of time," he said. "I am responsible for the air traffic communications and flying the airplane, but in fact it can be done. I have done it in ballooning. I've stayed awake that long, flying, also in sailing, single-handed."

Steve Fossett expects to take off sometime in April, boosted by the seasonally strong winds of the jet stream.

"I want to take off in the Central United States, climb up into the jet stream, initially at 41,000 feet and slowly climb up to as high as 52,000 feet," he said. "The route will go over the North Atlantic, probably over London and through Egypt, across the Persian Gulf and Indian and China, coming back over, perhaps through Hawaii and California and back to the Central United States."

That is presuming flight conditions - and his health - hold steady. Should back-up pilot Sir Richard Branson have to take the controls, the wait might be much longer because Sir Richard doesn't yet have a private pilot's license.