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Pilot set to challenge distance record

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett is gearing up for a solo, more-than-round-the-world airplane flight that would give him another entry in the record books.
Pilot Steve Fossett takes questions from
Millionaire pilot Steve Fossett, shown here after the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer's arrival at Kennedy Space Center last month, says he's ready to set a "slow pace" for what he hopes will be history's longest airplane flight.Bruce Weaver / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve Fossett, this era's Phileas Fogg, wants to do something not even the "Around the World in 80 Days" hero could contemplate: Fly around the globe — and then some — for more than three days without stopping.

The millionaire adventurer's goal is to break a 20-year-old record for longest flight. He plans to travel 27,012 miles (43,472 kilometers) in a spindly experimental airplane that helped him break a different record last year.

During his 80 hours in the air, Fossett will take power naps no longer than five minutes each. He'll drink a steady diet of nutritious milkshakes. And he'll relieve himself using "pee bottles" and a plastic bag.

His flight is tentatively set for dawn on Tuesday. He will take off at a runway used to land space shuttles, head east, circumnavigate the world and continue over the Atlantic Ocean for a second time before landing outside London.

"Except for takeoff and landing, it's a slow pace," he said. "That's a good thing. It gives me time to think about every step that I'm making because if I make an error ... it will be devastating to the flight."

Surpassing Voyager’s record
If successful, Fossett's trip would surpass the previous airplane record of 24,987 miles (40,212 kilometers) set in 1986 by the Voyager aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager, as well as the balloon record of 25,361 miles (40,815 kilometers) set by the Breitling Orbiter 3 in 1999.

When Fossett actually leaves the ground depends on the weather. Temperature at takeoff must be less than 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) to achieve maximum thrust, and right now the earliest time that criteria will be met is Tuesday.

Fossett already has faced delays unrelated to weather or engineering. The takeoff was pushed back a few days because Chinese authorities were unable to issue the proper overflight permits during the Chinese New Year, and the plane's movement to NASA's Kennedy Space Center last month was delayed because of a mishap that damaged a wing.

Wellspring of patience
Fossett, 61, a former Chicago investment tycoon, has a wellspring of patience. He had failed five times before successfully circumnavigating the globe solo in a balloon in 2002.

This time the aviator plans to use the same plane, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, that he used last March when he became the first person to fly solo nonstop, without refueling, around the globe in 67 hours. As the plane's name suggests, the venture is being financed by Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson.

The gliderlike aircraft with a 114-foot (35-meter) wing span has two external booms, holding 5,454 pounds (2,480 kilograms) of fuel, on either side of the 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) cockpit, which supports the engine. At takeoff, fuel is expected to account for almost 85 percent of the graphite-made aircraft's weight. Drag parachutes are used to help it descend from its average flying height of about 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) or slow it down from a top speed of 285 mph (459 kilometers per hour).

"When you have an aircraft like that, everything except the cockpit and the engine are basically a part of the fuel tank," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis. "The engine can't be too large because then it would add extra weight, which would need extra fuel, which means you need a bigger airplane. It's a fine line for the person doing the engineering."

The next frontier
That person is Burt Rutan, who designed the Voyager airplane that his brother, Dick, and Yeager used to set the record almost two decades ago. Two years ago, Burt Rutan won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by rocketing his SpaceShipOne to the edge of space twice in five days, a feat considered a breakthrough for the future of private spaceflight. Rutan has popularized "canard" designs in which small wings are placed near the nose of the aircraft.

"If there are patron saints out there of current airplane design, Burt would have to be among them," Knapinski said.

If Fossett succeeds on this quest, his personal achievement will be significant. But its impact on aviation history will be limited since the era of barrier-breaking aviation records — Charles Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris flight and Wiley Post's around-the-world flight ’ has long passed, said Bob van der Linden, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

"Being able to stay up there and stay alert, being able to do that is terrific, but it's not going to change the world," van der Linden said. "The new barrier, that's spaceflight, because you're pushing the edges of the unknown. Aviation is pretty well-known now."