Round-the-world flight to start in Kansas

The Virgin GlobalFlyer soars over the Sierra Nevadas during a test in April.
The Virgin GlobalFlyer soars over the Sierra Nevadas during a test in April.Virgin GlobalFlyer / Virgin GlobalFlyer
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett — the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a balloon — will begin his attempt at the first solo, nonstop flight around the world without refueling from a converted military airport in Kansas.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines said Wednesday that Fossett will pilot the GlobalFlyer in early January 2005, taking off and landing at the more than 2-mile-long (3.75-kilometer-long) runway at the former Schilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kan.

Famed aviation designer Burt Rutan and his California-based company, Scaled Composites, spent four years designing and constructing the GlobalFlyer aircraft. Rutan was the designer of the Voyager, whose two pilots were the first to fly around the world without refueling in 1986.

Rutan also designed SpaceShipOne, which recently won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately built, piloted rocket ship to fly in space twice in a span of two weeks.

The GlobalFlyer flight will take Fossett close to 70 hours to complete. He will be carrying nearly 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms) of fuel.

Salina was chosen because of its central location, available facilities and the airport's 12,300-foot runway, one of the longest in the United States, Virgin Atlantic said in a written statement. The other leading candidate was California's Edwards Air Force Base, which is near Scaled's headquarters in Mojave, Calif.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the Federal Aviation Administration favored Edwards for the flight's finishing line, in part because if anything went wrong during the final hours, the plane could go down at sea without posing a risk to the population on land. But in Wednesday's statement, Fossett said he preferred to spend the flight's last hours over land.

"If I run out of fuel in the last thousand miles, I will be able to glide to a safe landing in any airport in Western USA," Fossett was quoted as saying. "If I had chosen a West Coast airport, I would risk ditching in the Pacific if I run out of fuel near the end of the round-the-world flight.”

The flight is being financed by Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson.

“Virgin Atlantic is delighted to be launching this historic record attempt from Salina, Kansas, and I hope that we can add Salina to the roll call of sites like Kitty Hawk which have been the setting for milestones in aviation history," Branson said in the statement.

The British "rebel billionaire" plans to follow the flight in a support aircraft and will serve as the reserve pilot. Mission control operations will be based at Kansas State University at Salina, in the College of Technology and Aviation.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC's Alan Boyle.