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Solo pilot sets round-the-world record

Sir Richard Branson sprays Steve Fossett with champagne shortly after Fossett landed the GlobalFlyer in Salina, Kan., on Thursday.
Sir Richard Branson sprays Steve Fossett with champagne shortly after Fossett landed the GlobalFlyer in Salina, Kan., on Thursday.NBC News

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett landed safely Thursday at the Kansas airport where he started his nonstop, round-the-world trek — becoming the first man ever to make such a flight solo and without refueling.

"That was a big one," Fossett said with a laugh as he climbed out of the airplane and hugged his wife, Peggy.

The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer touched down at 1:50 p.m. CT Thursday — just over 67 hours after it took off from the Salina airport in central Kansas on Monday evening. In all, Fossett traveled 23,000 miles (36,800 kilometers) around the world.

Crowds of spectators lined the airstrip and cheered as the plane rolled down the runway.

"Fossett, you're a stud," one mission controller told him during the final approach.

Sir Richard Branson, who financed the mission, greeted Fossett with hugs and then sprayed him with champagne. The Virgin Atlantic founder is a longtime friend and fellow adventurer of Fossett's.

Amid the congratulations, Fossett paid tribute to the team that built his swoopy, composite-construction airplane and supported the mission. "I'm really a fortunate guy to have spearheaded this," he said.

Problem overcome
An apparent problem in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer's fuel system had prompted Fossett to consider ending the flight in Hawaii. As he flew over the Pacific on Wednesday, fuel-tank sensors indicated that he might not have enough fuel to complete the world circuit. But Paul Moore, the GlobalFlyer project director, said favorable tail winds and a shifting of fuel from the plane's outermost tanks gave Fossett the confidence to press on.

It was not clear whether the fuel-system problem was due to an actual shortage or false readings from the sensors.

In a radio transmission from his cockpit on Wednesday night, Fossett sounded tired and said he felt as if he was experiencing "four nights in two and a half days." But as the finish line loomed closer, Fossett's spirits rose.

Public interest in the adventure rose as well: Moore noted that the had received 76 million hits as of Wednesday. Mission organizers reported that the Web site was sending out 80 million bits of data per second on Thursday morning. They had to upgrade their computer firepower to cope with the traffic.

The history of an adventure
Until the fuel crisis arose, the most serious glitch had been an intermittent navigation problem experienced as Fossett was crossing the U.S.-Canada border.

During the flight, Fossett survived on diet milkshakes — “low-residue” nourishment that cut down on solid waste disposal needs during the flight, spokeswoman Lori Levin said. Fossett's flight suit was equipped with a collection bag and tubes to deal with nature's call.

As for sleep, Fossett tried to take 30-minute "power naps" during stretches of the flight, after passing control over to an autopilot system. But the naps turned out to last only a few minutes at a time, with Fossett anxiously keeping an eye on the plane's indicators.

Fossett already is noted for being the first to fly solo around the globe in a balloon, a milestone achieved in 2002, and holds dozens of other aviation and sailing records.

Aviation pioneer Wiley Post made the first solo around-the-world trip in 1933, but he took more than seven days and stopped numerous times. Later, in-flight refueling enabled military planes to circumnavigate the globe without stopping.

The first nonstop global flight without refueling was made in 1986 by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, in the propeller-driven Voyager airplane. That trip took nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds — illustrating how far airplane technology has come in 19 years. Dick Rutan's brother, Burt Rutan, was the designer of the GlobalFlyer and the Voyager as well as SpaceShipOne, which last year became the first privately developed craft to soar into outer space.

On Wednesday, Fossett broke the record for the longest nonstop, unrefueled flight by a jet. That particular record — 12,532 miles (20,168 kilometers) — was set by a B-52 bomber in 1962.

This report includes information from The Associated Press.