March 1, 2005

Non-Stop, Round-the-World Flight Going Well

SALINA, United States (AFP) -- The early stages of American adventurer Steve Fossett's bid to make the first solo non-stop flight around the world without refueling aboard the GlobalFlyer have gone "exactly as planned", organizers said.

"Mission control has spoken with Steve and he reports that everything is working well and that he is extremely pleased with progress so far," project manager Paul Moore told a press briefing late Monday.

After weeks of weather delays, the GlobalFlyer took off at 6:47 pm (0047 GMT Tuesday) from Salina Municipal Airport on a journey expected to last between 60 and 80 hours.

Hundreds of spectators lined the tarmac and cheered as the aircraft, heavily laden down by fuel, trundled down the runway and rose into the darkening sky.

There was a brief moment of anxiety when the craft appeared to lose altitude seconds after taking off, before it regained height and climbed into the skies.

Fossett spoke briefly to reporters before climbing into the cramped cockpit.

"I'm feeling good. I'm feeling healthy. It's going to be a long night tonight and a long night tomorrow night," he said.

The three-day journey will test Fossetts endurance and his abilities as a pilot.

The delicate, light-bodied airplane has been built with very little margin for complications like turbulence and Fossett will need to keep a close eye on the fuel distribution to ensure that the plane remains properly balanced.

The greatest potential for structural problems came during the first two hours of the flight when Fossett maneuvered the plane through the ground winds and potential turbulence.

At takeoff, the 3,350-pound (1,522-kilogram) single engine aircraft was carrying nearly 19,000 pounds (8,636 kilograms) of fuel in 13 tanks for the 23,000-mile (37,260-kilometer) journey at altitudes as high as 52,000 feet (15,850 meters).

Fossett is wearing a chest pack with a parachute and should be able to bail out in less than two minutes if he encounters any critical failures. Once he reaches his cruising altitude of about 45,000 feet (13,000 meters) he can expect a smoother ride.

By 10:00pm (0400 GMT, Tuesday) Fossett had traveled 1,400 kilometers (869 miles) and was approaching Canadian airspace after having passed over Chicago and Detroit. He was flying at an altitude of 38,000 feet (11,580 meters) at an approximate speed of 310 knots (357 miles per hour).

While in the air, Fossett will be in near-constant contact with mission control here via a NASA (news - web sites)-designed communication system.

"It was obviously an emotional moment in that I was standing with Steve Fossett's wife. It was a dangerous moment and an enormous relief when it got off the ground and left Salina," said British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways is funding the daring venture.

"Something I never thought I would get to say was 'next stop Salina,'" Branson said.

A chase plane is following Fossett along the route in order to document the flight and provide support should he be forced into an early landing. Fossett has been equipped with an emergency beacon which would alert search-and-rescue teams to his exact position.

Fossett has little room to stretch in the 7.7-foot-long (2.3-meter-long) cabin and will sustain himself with diet milkshakes.

Despite the dangers, Fossett said he is determined to try to capture the "most important aviation records that have been left undone." "It's worth the risk," he said.

The project brings together three giants of aviation and adventure.

Fossett has set dozens of world records and world firsts with jet airplanes and gliders, hot air balloons and sailing.

The former stock options trader became famous in the mid 1990s when he made an attempt with Branson to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. He managed the trip solo on his sixth attempt in the summer of 2002.

Branson has set a number of sailing and aviation records in his own right while promoting the Virgin brand. He will monitor Fossett's progress from mission control in Salina.

The GlobalFlyer was designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan, who recently made headlines when his SpaceShipOne won the 10 million dollar "X Prize" for sending a privately-designed craft into space twice in two weeks.

Rutan also designed the Voyager, which was used by his brother Dick Rutan and Jeanne Yeager in 1986 to set a record of nine days for a non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world.

Fossett hopes to beat that record by making it in less than 80 hours, and by doing it on his own.

Once he clears the Canadian province of Newfoundland, Fossett will head across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa.

He hopes pass above Casablanca before he continuing on towards Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China, South Korea and Japan.


On the Net:

Virgin Galactic's GlobalFlyer