MANSTON, England — Fighting through sleep deprivation, severe turbulence and a last gasp emergency landing, Steve Fossett broke the record for the longest nonstop flight in aviation history.
The 61-year-old adventurer piloted his lightweight experimental plane, Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, to set a new record of 26,389 miles in about 76 hours despite a complete electronic failure that threatened to turn his glorious return into a nightmare.
Fossett put emergency landing procedures into action when a generator light started to flash upon his descent.
The mechanical crisis forced him to land Saturday at Bournemouth International Airport, in southern England, instead of his planned landing point in nearby Kent, where hundreds of well wishers were gathered to greet him.
“He burst two tires on landing and the poor Global Flyer had to be dragged off the runway,” said Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, the company sponsoring Fossett’s record bid.
Ground control confirmed Fossett had broken the distance record of 24,987 miles as his plane flew over Shannon, Ireland, after crossing the Atlantic, his ground team said.
That eclipsed the 1986 record set by the lightweight Voyager aircraft, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. It also beats the balloon record of 25,361 miles set in 1999 by the Breitling Orbiter 3.
'I was really lucky'
Fossett arrived at Kent International Airport on a private jet alongside the billionaire Virgin Atlantic owner Sir Richard Branson, where he was greeted by his wife, Peggy, and rapturous applause from the assembled crowd.
He said he realized he was in trouble when he began his descent for Kent and a light came on indicating the plane’s generator had failed, prompting him to put emergency procedures in place.
“I was really lucky to make it here today, there was a lot going on. The tension of the final part really took it out of me, but I will be fine in the morning,” he told reporters.
Plagued with difficulties
The finale was one of several episodes that nearly doomed his 3½-day voyage.
During takeoff Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, his plane lost about 750 pounds of fuel in a leak — and he nearly ran out of runway.
“I had to pull up with all my might” to get the plane in the air before the end of the airstrip.
Severe turbulence over India “almost broke the plane apart,” he said, forcing him to strap on a parachute.
After the news conference he was presented with the Guinness World Record for the longest flight in history.
Branson, who was beaming with pride throughout the conference, said Fossett’s record was a superhuman effort.
“He’s just flown further than man, or woman, has ever flown,” said Branson. “He has had pretty much no sleep since he set off from Kennedy a few days ago, and he has been through an incredible amount.”
Fossett already holds the record for flying solo around the globe in a balloon and for being the first person to circle the globe solo in a plane without stopping or refueling. That flight last year lasted 67 hours and was hampered by a fuel leak.
A fuel leak delayed Fossett’s scheduled takeoff from Tuesday to Wednesday and the plane’s ventilation system malfunctioned midway through the trip, causing temperatures in the cockpit to rise to as much as 130 degrees. Fossett was forced to drink a large part of his water supply earlier than planned because of the heat, his flight team said.
While in the air, Fossett took power naps no longer than 10 minutes each and drank a steady diet of milkshakes. His plane was equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon.
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