After coping with a fuel leak, turbulence and soaring heat in the cockpit, millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett flew over the United States on Friday in his quest to break aviation’s distance record.
Fossett completed his Pacific Ocean crossing at mid-morning Pacific time, flying over the San Diego area and continuing over the American Southwest. In order to break the record, Fossett will have to fly over North America as well as the Atlantic, with a landing in England.
With less than a day's worth of travel remaining in Fossett's expected 3½-day odyssey, his fuel supply was the biggest unknown.
Fossett’s team had calculated that he would have 500 pounds to 1,000 pounds of fuel left at the end of the 80-hour trip, but the loss of 750 pounds (340 kilograms) of fuel to a leak during takeoff at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday left no margin for error, the team said on Day 2 of the voyage. Mission managers also worried about weak winds over the Atlantic during the last leg of the trip.
“The fuel loss will diminish the total number of miles it is able to travel,” Mission Control director Kevin Stass said in a statement.
Before takeoff, the spindly plane had more than 18,000 pounds (8,100 kilograms) of fuel.
Fossett’s team could not pinpoint the cause of the leak. Fuel leaks had delayed his takeoff, and also plagued Fossett’s successful flight last year when he became the first person to fly solo, nonstop around the world without refueling.
Over India, Fossett encountered a stretch of air turbulence that was so severe that he feared the plane would break up, Mission Control reported. "It was a scary time, and I had my parachute on and I was prepared to bail out in case a wing broke," Fossett said in a dispatch carried on the mission's Web site.
The plane’s ventilation system also was malfunctioning, causing the temperatures to rise to as much as 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius). Fossett was forced to drink a large part of his water supply earlier than planned because of the heat, the team said.
His goal is a nearly 27,000-mile (43,500-kilometer) trip — once around the world and then across the Atlantic again — with a landing Saturday outside London. The voyage would break the airplane distance record of 24,987 miles (40,212 kilometers) set in 1986 by the lightweight Voyager aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager, as well as the balloon record of 25,361 miles (40,815 kilometers) set by Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard in 1999.
Fossett is taking power naps no longer than five minutes each and drinking nutrition shakes while in the air. His plane is equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon, just in case.
Fossett’s plane, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, is made of carbon fiber and has a super fuel-efficient turbofan jet engine with a very high thrust-to-weight ratio.
It was designed by Burt Rutan, Dick's brother and the designer of the Voyager aircraft as well as the SpaceShipOne rocket plane. Both those earlier craft are now hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Fossett's latest odyssey, like last year's GlobalFlyer trip, is being backed by Virgin tycoon Richard Branson, who also has commissioned a fleet of SpaceShipTwo passenger spaceships from Burt Rutan.