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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February 2005, 23:01 GMT
Fossett eyes last major jet mark
Steve Fossett
Steve Fossett: World records in the air and on the water
When Steve Fossett taxis down the runway to embark on his latest aviation adventure, he may have little doubt in his mind - but others might.

They may even wonder if his experimental aeroplane will actually get off the ground.

The trimaran-like GlobalFlyer jet will be trying to circumnavigate the globe, without stopping or re-fuelling.

For Fossett to add this solo record tohis long list of firsts, he must take everything with him - and that means filling the vehicle's two huge external booms with over 10,000 pounds (4.5 tonnes) of fuel.

I would rather not sleep so I can stay on top of things
Steve Fossett
But in all the testing that has been done on GlobalFlyer, no-one has actually attempted to take off with the tanks filled to the top - to fly the aircraft when it will be more than 80% fuel by weight.

"We think we've done our homework on these calculations," Steve said. "All of our indications from flying it at lower weights have been extrapolated; we think we understand the performance of the airplane well enough to estimate the take-off length required, which is 9,000ft."

Keeping the balance right

To make sure, though, there will be an extra 3,300ft (1,000m) of runway at the Salina, Kansas, airport to play with.

Steve Fossett knows the risks. When this non-stop no-refuelling feat was achieved in a propeller-driven aircraft in 1986, the aeroplane on that occasion, Voyager, nearly ripped its wings off.

GlobalFlyer on one of its test flights above the Sierra Nevada mountains (Image: Virgin GlobalFlyer)

So heavy was the fuel load that the wing tips sagged dangerously close to the runway tarmac.

"My wings will sag, too, but our calculations are that they will still be 18 inches off the ground," Steve told the BBC News website. "The most dangerous aspect of the flight is take-off."

But there are other major areas of concern. One is turbulence while GlobalFlyer is fully laden and making its way to the cruise altitude of 45,000ft (14km). And starting in the mid-US, Fossett will have an anxious wait all the way to Egypt before his slow-climb takes him to this gentler cruise environment.

Once he is up there, though, it will be familiar territory for this endurance adventurer.

Steve Fossett's aviation and sailing exploits are legendry - the balloon records, the aeroplane records; he has even swum the English Channel and raced at Le Mans, twice.

He knows how to deal with the physical and mental challenges that come from pushing the body way beyond the nine-to-five rhythm.

And even though it should take less than 80 hours to complete the approximately 25,000 miles (about 40,000km) required for this journey under international sporting rules, he will need to be awake for most of the trip.

"This plane changes a lot while it is flying; it's a heavy plane when I start and very light when I finish. I have to do a lot of fuel distribution - making sure the airplane stays in balance all the time.

"It's an experimental airplane; there're more things that have to be monitored, so I would rather not sleep so I can stay on top of things."

The one that matters

On past challenges, Fossett has gone three days with no sleep at all. But if he needs it, for this challenge, he will have autopilot back-up and a countdown alarm that he can set for five-minute catnaps.

What he cannot do is get up and walk around. Steve will sit in the main fuselage, the centre pod of GlobalFlyer, just behind the nose landing gear and below the engine.

Voyager (Scaled Composites)
Voyager almost failed to get off the ground
This cockpit is tight, little more than 7ft (2m) long. He will have good visibility out the side ports; radio, satellite phone and e-mail will keep him in touch with mission control and a chase plane that will occasionally follow his progress.

His good friend and sponsor Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, will be up in the air to talk to Steve and cheer him on.

The prize, as far as Steve is concerned, is to grab the last major jet record.

"In 1999, I was sitting around with some friends and we were just talking about what's the most important aviation record left to be done and this is what we came up. It's the most important still left out there."

If weather conditions are right, the record attempt could begin this Monday.

Diagram of GlobalFlyer
(1) Fuel tanks - Gross weight is 10 tonnes; empty weight is 1.5t
(2) Engine - Williams FJ44-3 ATW (10,200 Newtons of thrust)
(3) Cockpit - Pressurised and large enough for pilot to lie down
Length - 11.7m; Height - 3.6m; Wingspan - 35m
Speed - in excess of 460km/h; 290mph; 250 knots

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12 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
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08 Jan 04 |  Science/Nature


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