Solo pilot begins round-the-world flight

The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer rises into the darkening sky over Salina, Kan., on Monday.
The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer rises into the darkening sky over Salina, Kan., on Monday.NBC News
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Millionaire pilot Steve Fossett waited for ideal flying conditions before taking off on another adventure, this time an attempt to become the first person to complete a nonstop, solo trip around the world.

Now, his biggest challenges are staying on course — and awake — during the 66-hour journey in the experimental GlobalFlyer.

“He’s rather used to staying up for a long time,” project manager Paul Moore said, hours after Fossett’s takeoff Monday night. “I think it’s not a walk in the park at 30,000 feet.”

Departure at dusk
Fossett, the first person to circle the globe solo in a balloon, launched his plane from the Salina Municipal Airport about 6:45 p.m. CT (7:45 p.m. ET). Hundreds of spectators, braving a bitterly cold wind, gathered along the 2-mile runway to watch the takeoff.

By midday Tuesday (East Coast time), Fossett was over Africa, not far from the Indian Ocean. According to updates posted on the project's Web site, everything is going according to plan. "I'm very happy with the situation," Fossett said in a telephone call with reporters. "And I think we've got a good chance."

Fossett hoped to return to Salina on Thursday morning.

The 23,000-mile (36,800-kilometer) flight had already been postponed several times because of shifting jet stream patterns or weather at the airport.

Before the flight, Fossett said he was “a bit nervous about takeoff,” even though he logged about 30 hours of training time in the jet-powered aircraft.

“I will be the ultimate test pilot,” he told reporters. “I have a lot to worry about. It’s a major endeavor.”

Financed by Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, it would be the first solo flight around the world without refueling.

Precedents for the trip
Aviation pioneer Wiley Post made the first solo around-the-world trip in 1933, taking more than seven days and stopping numerous times along the way. In-flight refueling made it possible for military planes such as B-52 bombers to go around the world without stopping.

Then, in 1986, Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan flew the propeller-driven Voyager aircraft to become the first duo to make a nonstop global flight without refueling. Dick Rutan is the brother of Burt Rutan, designer of the Voyager as well as the GlobalFlyer.

Besides the nonstop record, Fossett will attempt to break seven other aviation records, including the longest unrefueled flight by a jet aircraft. The current record is 12,532 miles (20,168 kilometers), set by a B-52 bomber in 1962.

Mission control director Kevin Stass said Fossett would fly over Chicago, Detroit and Canada before heading across the Atlantic late Monday night. The route would then take him over Africa, the Middle East, India, China and the Pacific Ocean.

The flight plan was adjusted once more later Monday after Algeria closed a portion of its airspace, said mission control director Kevin Stass. The change, he said, would slightly reduce the overall length of the flight and save some of the 18,000 pounds (8,200 kilograms) of fuel aboard the single-engine jet.

Extra fuel ... and diet milkshakes
Fossett planned to fly at an average speed of 287.5 mph (460 kilometers per hour) and rely on the jet stream to stretch his fuel. The GlobalFlyer will have about 15 percent extra fuel to allow for weather conditions or other changes to the flight plan, said Jon Karkow, chief engineer for the flight.


There was a risk the fuel could freeze from flying in the cold at altitudes of 52,000 feet (15,850 meters) for such a long time.

Fossett will survive on diet milkshakes. “I just picked a bunch of flavors off the shelf at the store,” he said.

The milkshakes represent “low-residue” nourishment that will cut down on solid waste disposal needs during the flight, spokeswoman Lori Levin explained. Fossett's flight suit is equipped with a collection bag and tubes to deal with nature's call.

As for sleep requirements, Fossett plans to take 30-minute "power naps" during stretches of the flight, after passing control over to an autopilot system. A video system will send live pictures of the flight controls back to GlobalFlyer's mission control in Kansas. If anything seems amiss, the controllers will awaken Fossett.

Branson planned to follow Fossett in a chase plane for the first day of the flight and on the last leg. He gave Fossett his wristwatch, complete with emergency beacon device, to wear for the flight.

“We want you and (the watch) back in one piece at the end,” Branson quipped.

The last leg of the journey was arranged to take place over land because Fossett wanted to make it easier to ditch the plane in case he ran out of fuel.

Fossett became the first to fly a hot-air balloon solo around the world in 2002 after nearly dying twice in six attempts to set the record. He has also tried to break the world gliding altitude record for the past four years in New Zealand but has failed because of poor conditions.

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