By Di Freeze
Continued from October
Steve Fossett has always loved adventure sports, but he wasn’t able to devote as much time as he desired to his various interests until after building a highly successful trading firm, Lakota Trading Inc. The result of the multimillionaire’s tenacity and diverse passions is official world records in five different sports venues.
Fossett climbed six of the Seven Summits, swam the English Channel, participated in the Iditarod sled dog race and Ironman triathlon, and drove the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He set 21 outright world records in sailing. He accomplished his goal of sailing a boat across the Atlantic solo when he competed in the Route de Rhum in 1994, placing fifth overall, and twice set the prestigious 24 Hour Record of Sailing. He set a transatlantic record in 2001 that wasn’t broken until July 2006. In 2004, he sailed around the world with a crew of 12, setting the world record for fastest circumnavigation around the world.
In 1995, Fossett made the first solo balloon flight across the Pacific. After determining he would be the first person to fly around the world in a balloon solo, he worked seven years to achieve that dream. Between 1996 and 2001, he made five solo round-the-world attempts.
After three attempts originating in the Northern Hemisphere, Fossett decided to start his flight in the Southern Hemisphere. The downside of that decision was that he would be over water most of the time, and off the main shipping routes. That meant that if his balloon were to go down unexpectedly over half the route, his life would be at risk.
He set off on Aug. 7, 1998, from Mendoza, Argentina, on his fourth attempt. Things were going well until Aug. 16. On that day, a violent thunderstorm brought a swift and brutal end to his flight. His balloon was ruptured. Fossett found himself falling 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea, 500 miles east of Australia.
By cutting fuel tanks loose 1,000 feet above the water, Fossett was able to soften the impact a little. Miraculously, he was unhurt in the landing. But the capsule quickly caught fire, capsized and submerged.
With his emergency beacon and life raft, he dove through the hatch into the ocean, and floated in the raft overnight until a rescue plane from New Caledonia spotted him the next morning. The Australian schooner Atlanta picked him up 24 hours after the crash.
“I was having the most success in the distance flights for five consecutive years; I made the longest flight in the world,” he said. “I felt I was the leader in the competition. But I lost all my equipment when I went down in that thunderstorm. It was very dramatic. I lived to tell about it, but I didn’t have any equipment left!”
Still, the 14,235.33-mile flight resulted in an absolute world distance record—and in a surprising new adventure. In December 1998, Fossett took a break from his attempt to make a solo balloon flight around the world and joined Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand in their ICO Global Challenger RTW attempt.
“Richard had been wanting to get me on his team, because I was doing so well. He recognized that this was an opportunity. I was out of the competition, because I didn’t have any equipment, and right at the year when somebody was going to make it. And I didn’t have time to rebuild a set of equipment. So I joined his team to fly with him. We made a very nice flight, more than halfway around the world, from Marrakech, Morocco to Honolulu—or near, just offshore,” he laughed.
That 12,403.07-mile flight began Dec. 16, 1998, and ended Dec. 25. A few months later, the race to be the first to fly a balloon nonstop around the world was over. On March 1, 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones set off in the Breitling Orbiter 3 from Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland. They landed in Egypt 19 days, 21 hr, 47 min later, after traveling 25,361 miles, 477.47 hours aloft.
Fossett wouldn’t be the first to fly a balloon around the world, but it still intrigued him to make the first solo flight. However, not wanting to be perceived as making the “second” flight around the world, he decided there had to be a space of time after the 1999 crewed flight of Piccard and Jones. Instead of flying the next year, he’d wait until 2001.
Fossett’s fifth solo RTW attempt began in Northam, Australia, August 5, and ended Aug. 17 at Bagé, Brazil. The duration of 12 days, 12 hr, 57 min, set a new solo flight record.
Fossett began his sixth and final attempt on June 19, 2002, from Northam, flying the Bud Light Spirit of Freedom. At one point, he had to hand-fly the balloon at less than 500 feet, in order to avoid high winds at altitude. He had a few other tense moments, but on July 4, 2002, he landed in Queensland, Australia, successfully completing the first RTW solo balloon flight. The RTW time on the 20,626.48-mile flight was 13 days, 8 hr, 33 min (14 days, 19 hr, 50 min until landing). A 3,186.80-mile portion of the flight, from June 30 – July 1, 2002, also established a 24 hour record for speed.
Fossett had completed another goal—one he’d worked toward for 10 years.
Flying the Zeppelin
Fossett is one of 17 Zeppelin captains in the world. He received his license to fly the Zeppelin in Germany.
“I had to get a German pilot’s license and basically a type rating in the Zeppelin,” he explained. “In order to set a record, you have to be qualified to fly the craft you’re in. You can’t be a student pilot; you have to be a qualified pilot in command.”
He accomplished his mission in that area in October 2004, when he set an absolute world speed record for airships of 71.5 mph in a Zeppelin NT.
Fixed wing records
Fossett got his fixed wing private pilot’s license in 1967. That’s another license he said he didn’t do much with until years later. After flying a Falcon 10, he moved up to a Cessna Citation 10, in which the jet pilot has set transcontinental, Australian transcontinental and round-the-world westbound non-supersonic records.
“The Australian transcontinental record is the fastest of any kind of aircraft to cross Australia,” he said. “It’s Perth to Brisbane. I did that while I was waiting for one of my balloon flight launches. We flew to Brisbane and flew back the same night to Perth. We waited a couple days, and when the balloon weather still wasn’t any good, we did a Perth to Hobart, Tasmania.”
He made the trip from Perth to Brisbane July 28, 2001, at 705.06 mph, to set the (unlimited) Australia transcontinental record; the flight from Perth to Hobart set the fastest world record (unlimited) by non-supersonic airplane, at 742.02 mph, July 30, 2001.
Fossett said their success was due to good weather forecasting, as well as running the Citation 10 right on its maximum speed.
“With the Citation 10, while flying low—41,000 feet—you can fly at .92 mach,” he said.
Fossett established several U.S. transcontinental records. On Sept. 17, 2000, he set an east to west (non-supersonic) record from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Diego, at 591.96 mph (3 hr, 29 min, 35 sec). On Feb. 5, 2003, flying from San Diego to Charleston, S.C., he set a west to east (non-supersonic) record, at 726.83 mph (2 hr, 56 min, 20 sec). That same day, with Joe Ritchie as PIC and Fossett as copilot, in a Piaggio Avanti, he established a turboprop (unlimited) record from San Diego to Charleston, at 549.18 mph (3 hr, 51 min, 52 sec), breaking a previous record held by Chuck Yeager.
“The SR-71 holds the absolute record,” he said. “Two hours and 56 minutes is still a pretty good time though, across the United States. The fastest anybody had done it before was three hours and 32 minutes, a couple of years earlier.”
Fossett set round-the-world records in the H-Class (medium airplanes) as well. He set an eastbound record on Feb. 16, 2000 (559.89 mph) and a westbound record on Nov. 24, 2000 (500.56).
Other airplane world records include LA-Honolulu (unlimited), 4 hr, 11 min, 5 sec, 609.84 mph, March 23, 2000; 200 km speed record (H-Class), 598.26 mph, Nov. 26, 1999; 5000 km speed record (H-Class), 572.29 mph, July 14, 2000; Goose Bay-Berlin (unlimited), transatlantic record/non supersonic airplanes, 649.93 mph, Oct. 8, 2003.
Looking back at his accomplishments, Fossett laughs and says he’s missed a few chances.
After Piccard and Jones made their historic flight, conversation at dinner at Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch one night turned to serious thought. The main subject: “What’s the most important thing that has not yet been done in aviation?”
“Dick Rutan, who did the first two-person nonstop flight around the world, believed that it was now possible to do a solo nonstop flight around the world,” Fossett recalled. “He said that his brother had a preliminary design concept, so I asked Dick to introduce me. I went out to Oshkosh in 1999 and met Burt.”
Although Fossett had his mind on the “last great aviation record,” once they began talking, Burt Rutan, the famed aircraft designer who heads Scaled Composites, had not one but two proposals for Fossett.
“One was the solo airplane. He told me, ‘What you really ought to do is the first private spaceship.’ He thought that was the most important thing to do. But the cost was higher; he estimated it would cost $2 million to do the solo around-the-world airplane, but it would cost $7 million to do the private spaceship. I was kind of thinking back on that; I should have done them both!” Fossett exclaimed. “The spaceship was a huge success; I didn’t take it, and subsequently, Paul Allen did. But for me, I’m a pilot, and the reason I wanted to do the GlobalFlyer project was to fly it, not to own it.”
On Oct. 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne secured the $10 million Ansari X Prize when it rocketed into history, becoming the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within the span of a 14-day period. Although Mike Melvill was at the helm that day, Fossett does have a close association with the project. He became one of the owners of Scaled Composites in the project’s early stages.
Fossett said that the GlobalFlyer project, which Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic ended up sponsoring, was slow to get started. Although Rutan knew how to design the airplane, they needed a fuel efficient jet engine and an autopilot.
“We considered a military jet engine that was developed as a result of the oil crisis in the 1970s, because it was fuel efficient,” he said. “But it was in a box. They made a number of them, and we were really nervous about being able to support a jet engine that was no longer being flown.”
Dr. Sam Williams, of Williams International, offered a production jet engine.
“It’s currently being put on airplanes, like the Raytheon Premier One,” he said. “I was really excited about that.”
The autopilot was the final deciding factor.
“We wanted a digital autopilot,” he said. “There were only a couple of companies that were making digital autopilots. One of them wouldn’t quote on it, and the other one was TruTrack in Arkansas. We flew out there the day after Christmas, in 2000. They had the right autopilot that could be modified for this purpose. That’s when I pushed the go button. I think it was a year before we actually started building.”
Although Burt Rutan came up with the concept, Fossett said the most significant person in the development of the GlobalFlyer was Scaled Composites’ John Karkow.
“He designed and managed the building of the plane and was the test pilot,” he said. “After it was built and a number of test flights had been done, I started doing test flights also. The two of us, depending on the circumstances, were flying the test flights.”
With wings stretching 114 feet, the trimaran-shaped body of the GlobalFlyer spans only 44 feet. It weighs only 3,460 pounds, due to exclusive use of graphite/epoxy materials, and only requires a single jet engine (Williams FJ44) to power it to a cruising altitude of 51,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 285 mph.
Learning to fly the GlobalFlyer was an experience.
“Obviously, the first time you get to fly it is solo,” he said of the single-passenger craft. “I worried about how to prepare for that. I finally concluded the best we could do is figure out what the speeds and the glide path would be in the GlobalFlyer, and, based on the engineering, how it would fly. Then, we’d use those same parameters in Mike Melvill’s Long-Eze. I went up and flew with Mike, and practiced the glide slope and the speeds, and got that down pat. Then, that same day, I got out, got in the GlobalFlyer, and flew it.”
He said the speeds had been calculated correctly, and he quickly realized that the GlobalFlyer handled very well and landed easily.
“You don’t get any surprises when you’re in flight,” he said. “I felt very secure in the GlobalFlyer.”
Fossett confirmed that the GlobalFlyer is more similar to a glider than a powered airplane.
“But then you add on some characteristics of a jet engine, so my experience flying Citations was also relevant in understanding the plane, and how to fly it,” he said.
When location was first discussed, Rutan and others at Scaled Composites leaned toward Fossett flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California.
“I insisted that I wanted to fly from the middle of the United States,” Fossett said. “If I started at Edwards, and flew eastbound around the world, we’d be stretching it on fuel. That means I’m at risk of running out of fuel after passing over Hawaii and ending up in the water—which not only loses the plane, but would also be very dangerous. Whereas, if I run out of fuel over the continental area of the United States, this airplane has a 32 to one glide ratio—similar to a standard performance glider—so I could fly more than 300 miles without an engine, and basically land anywhere.”
Fossett reasoned that starting in the middle of the U.S. gave him time to make sure the airplane was working correctly before he got out over the Atlantic.
“It also would give me the final 1,500 miles over land on the finish,” he said. “My first idea was Salina, Kansas, because it has a long runway. I brought the idea up to the airport manager, Tim Rogers, and he just jumped on it. He made sure I got everything that I wanted—from the city, the chamber of commerce, and also from Kansas State. It has their aviation school out there at Salina (Municipal) Airport. They immediately got the students involved.”
Four professional pilot students became involved in flight planning for the project, and seven of the A&P maintenance students helped in the maintenance and preparation of the aircraft.
“Everybody loved it, including me,” Fossett said. “I got all the help I wanted, and our own huge hangar. It was the perfect setup. By happy coincidence, they had planned to repave the runway as well, just in advance of my flight. So I had a very smooth runway surface, which was also beneficial.”
Although the flight was planned for January 2005, it was delayed more than a month due to turbulence.
“I want the good winds, but when the jet stream is overhead, it will often create turbulence, especially if there’s a curve in the jet stream,” he explained. “The GlobalFlyer is very vulnerable to turbulence; when it’s fully loaded, it’s only considered to be good for two G’s, which is very low. I waited for a time when I could fly away from the jet stream in calm air, during my climb, and then rejoin the jet stream after I burned off a little bit of fuel and also got to higher altitude, where the turbulence is less. I eventually took a routing, flying north of the jet stream, up to Newfoundland, Canada, and then turned south to join the jet stream.”
With 30 hours in the experimental aircraft, Fossett ended up taking off on Feb. 28, 2005, just after sunset. Several hours into his flight, Fossett experienced an intermittent GPS failure for a two-hour period over Canada, but the GPS finally reengaged. On March 2, as the GlobalFlyer passed over China, just as Fossett was getting ready to embark upon the most dangerous part of the route—the Pacific Ocean—it was determined that one-sixth of his fuel was missing. That determination wasn’t easy to make.
“There are two different fuel recording systems,” Fossett explained. “One is just a regular probe system, like a car gas tank, and the other one’s a totalizer, which records the fuel that goes into the engine and gets burned. The totalizer system failed. The probe system is very inaccurate, because how these probes read is so dependent on the angle of the airplane. It took a long time, almost halfway around the world, before they were sure that it actually lost a lot of fuel.”
It was later decided that the loss had occurred during the first three hours of flight.
“It had lost the fuel out of the fuel vents during my climb out—3,100 pounds, out of 18,100 pounds,” he said. “For a plane that was designed just to make it around the world, with a thousand-pound reserve of fuel, that was pretty bad to lose 3,100 pounds at the start. But there was a good weather pattern, and we flew every aspect of fuel efficiency we could, and we made it back around.”
At the time, however, it had to be determined if he should land earlier than expected. The Hawaiian Islands was one consideration, but he decided to continue to the California coast. With tailwinds helping, he continued on to Salina, landing safely at 1:50 pm on March 3, after three sleepless nights, and achieved the first solo non-stop RTW speed record (an absolute record). He made the 22,936-mile flight in 67 hr, 1 min, 10 sec, traveling at an average speed of 342.2 mph.
That summer, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer and SpaceShipOne/White Knight were two of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh’s biggest draws.
Although the purpose of the GlobalFlyer was to make the first solo around-the-world nonstop flight, Fossett did contemplate a flight to establish a record for longest distance.
“I didn’t really consider it very actively until after I landed the first solo, and realized that if I hadn’t lost that fuel, I could have done the distance record in this plane,” he said. “That only required fixing the fuel loss.”
On the distance flight, Fossett was going to have to do an ocean crossing at the end of his trip.
“The only way to do the distance record, if you want to fly the jet streams, would be not only to fly around the world, but to fly additional distance,” he explained. “If I started in California, I’d go around the world and then continue on to Florida, let’s say, for a finish; that wasn’t quite long enough. I decided I would take off from the East Coast of the United States, fly around the world, and then cross the Atlantic a second time.”
As soon as word leaked out that Fossett was interested in going for the distance record, he received a special invitation.
“NASA Kennedy Space Center approached me and asked, ‘Why don’t you come down here and do the flight from the space shuttle landing field?'” he recalled. “They want to promote the space shuttle runway for other uses after the space shuttle’s retired, so they liked the idea of inviting me, a private party, there to do a record. It gave me that East Coast location, although it’s very warm down there, and it’s hard to get enough wind to get your takeoff performance in warm conditions with a jet engine.”
The plan was for the anticipated 80-hour, 26,084-mile journey to end with a landing at Kent International Airport, Kent, England. After a three-week delay, waiting for an early morning temperature in the desired 45-degree Fahrenheit range, Fossett left NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 8, 2006, aware that the “ultimate flight” would be stretching the limits of the aircraft. Spectators held their breath, as the 4,000-pound GlobalFlyer took off, carrying nearly 18,000 pounds of jet fuel in 13 tanks, and using more than 11,000 feet of the 15,000-foot runway.
“Takeoff was a bit scary, to say the least,” Fossett later told GlobalFlyer Mission Control.
On that flight, he again lost fuel, when 750 pounds escaped from the venting system during takeoff, but he said it wasn’t as critical as the earlier flight.
“The fuel was very close on that flight, but we knew exactly how much I had, and we could calculate that I did have just enough to make it to the finish,” he said. “And we believed our calculations.”
Fossett described the main flight overall as “very relaxing.”
“Until something really went wrong,” he laughed.
He had several tense moments. Even before reaching cruising altitude, a cockpit ventilation system broke down, driving interior temperatures to nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit. He encountered severe turbulence over Bhopal, India, causing the aircraft to shake and oscillate violently.
“The turbulence was so bad, I couldn’t maintain altitude or directional control,” he remembered. “I was really wondering if the plane would survive that; I thought a spar could break in the middle of the night. I was thinking, ‘Geez, if this thing breaks, I have to depressurize the airplane, get out, and then land in the middle of the night, in India, with a parachute.’ That would have been a really bad circumstance.”
Fossett slipped into his parachute to prepare for bailing out, but was relieved when the airplane passed through the worst of the turbulence.
“It was a stronger plane than we thought it was,” he said.
On February 11, over Shannon, Ireland, Fossett broke the airplane nonstop global flight distance record of 24,986 miles, set by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager in December 1986 aboard Voyager. But he still had more excitement left. That same day, while starting his descent for landing, the sole generator failed.
“I estimated I had 25 minutes left on my battery before everything in the cockpit was going to go dark,” he said. “I was descending out of 51,000 thousand feet, and had a long way to come down. I decided I better get this thing on the ground, so I ended up landing in Bournemouth, England, instead of Kent.
“That was pretty dramatic. There’s a little canopy on the GlobalFlyer, where I sit up high on a pillow, for takeoff and landing, so I can get good visibility. But that ices on a long flight, from condensation on the inside. Normally, after I’ve been flying high, I’ll do a descent, and when I get down below 10,000 feet, I have a lot of time for it to warm up. I can clear up the ice and see where I’m going. But in this emergency descent over England, I didn’t have time.
When Fossett got down over Bournemouth International Airport, England, the canopy was still completely iced up.
“I was taking vectors from air traffic control, and flew over the airport three times—big circuits—until finally the ice cleared and I came in for a landing,” he said.
That’s when he found out that he had one flat tire, and that the other had frozen brakes.
“I probably punctured the one on the takeoff, and blew the other on touchdown,” he said. “I landed with two flat tires. There was a lot of excitement in that flight.”
He accomplished that flight of 25,766 miles in 76 hr, 42 min, 55 sec, establishing an absolute non-stop distance record.
Although it wasn’t highly publicized, Fossett made another around-the-world flight March 14-17, 2006. Of the seven absolute world records in airplanes, he knew that the GlobalFlyer was capable of setting three. He had already taken care of speed around the world, as part of the solo, and the longest distance. Now, he had his eye on the absolute closed circuit distance record.
“The other four records aren’t suitable; three of them (speed) are held by the SR-71 and the altitude record’s held by the MiG-25,” he said. “I thought, ‘Before I retire this plane to a museum, I should fly it for what it’s capable of doing, and not retire it prematurely.’ Sponsors weren’t very interested in it, so I finally decided, ‘I’ll just do it.’ We got the plane back to Salina, Kansas, and got ready.”
To fly the longest closed circuit flight that’s ever been done, Fossett had to fly around the world with extra diversions.
“It was a very long flight,” he said. “In order to achieve the distance necessary to get the record, once I got to Japan I had to get down to the equator where the Earth is wider, and fly along the equator until I got closer to Mexico, then come up.”
The flight again had tense moments, including another severe episode of turbulence over Bhopal. He also had a brake problem on the landing.
“I had to land in IFR conditions when I came into Salina,” he said. “I had to fly an approach in icy conditions, so it was a little bit of drama.”
That flight established an absolute closed circuit distance record of 25,294 miles.
On each of the GlobalFlyer flights, Fossett set three records in different categories, bringing his total count to 115 official world records (in five sports). Although it had been suggested that the GlobalFlyer would be useful in some research activities, particularly because of its capability for long and slow flight, Fossett was more interested in giving it to the Smithsonian.
“That was the destiny of this plane,” he said. “I didn’t want to jeopardize wrecking it any more, now that it had done its primary records.”
That destiny would be fulfilled. Arrangements were made to exhibit the aircraft at the
National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. On May 23, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer made its last flight. Fossett flew the aircraft from Salina to Dulles Airport. It was a rare honor.
“Most of the planes hanging in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum really aren’t capable of flying anymore,” he said. “The GlobalFlyer is at its prime. I had permission to do a low pass over the airport, and then I came around, landed and taxied up to the door of the museum and gave it to them.”
Gliding into the stratosphere
Fossett first got his pilot’s license for gliders in 1975, but never flew until he started going out to Hiltons’ ranch, a glider paradise in northern Nevada.
“Hannes Linke got me back involved in flying gliders in 1995,” he said. “Eventually, through various people I met at the ranch, I got more serious about it and decided to pursue records in gliders.”
Fossett utilizes three gliders in that pursuit, two ASH-25s and a DG-505.
“We use the ASH-25 for speed and distance records,” he said. “It’s a high performance glider with a 60 to one glide ratio. The DG is also a good performing glider, but it was more intended for the special purpose of the altitude record.”
He keeps one glider at Minden-Tahoe Airport.
“It’s one of the best glider bases in the country,” he said.
While in New Zealand making altitude record attempts, Fossett met Terry Delore, who proposed they fly together.
“He wanted to be able to fly the best equipment, and be associated with someone who’s very serious about this,” Fossett said. “I quickly recognized that as far as glider flying skills, he’s one of the very best in the world, so this was a great opportunity for me to be flying with an outstanding pilot.”
It was a winning combination. Over a two-year period, between November 2002 and December 2004, Fossett and Delore set 10 absolute world glider records (open class) for speed and distance.
Fossett’s most recent achievement occurred on Aug. 29, 2006, when he set a new world glider altitude record, with Einar Enevoldson, a former NASA research pilot, as his copilot. The record was set in El Calafate, Argentina. Perlan, a high performance research glider based on a German-built DG-505, made the first ever glider flight into the earth’s stratosphere, reaching a height of 50,671 feet (15,447 m). It shattered the previous record, set in 1986 in California, by 1,662 feet (507 m).
Enevoldson served as project operations director and chief engineer of the flight, made in conjunction with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The objective was to prove the possibility of achieving un-powered flight to tremendous altitude by “surfing” from one mountain wave to another, to increasingly greater height.
First flights took place in 2002 in New Zealand. Besides Argentina and New Zealand, attempts were also made in the United States over the last five years. The record-breaking flight took place primarily within a 60-mile radius of El Calafate, near the border of Argentina and Chile. After being towed to 13,000 feet, the men began their search for the lift required to achieve their goal, then flew along the crest of the Andes, “surfing the mountain wave.” With outside temperatures falling to as low as -57 degrees C, Fossett and Enevoldson, wearing NASA spacesuits, warded off the cold inside the unpressurized tandem cockpit with helmets, hand muffs and foot heaters.
About four and a half hours into the flight, Perlan achieved the record altitudes first targeted by the project when it was conceived seven years earlier. Fossett has plans to return to Argentina in November, for speed and distance records.
Visiting the past with Alcock and Brown
Fossett also took part in another fascinating project, repeating the most significant flight made by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. The transatlantic flight was made in a Vickers Vimy, an open cockpit, replica biplane.
“I got invited in on the project in its final stages,” he said. “This plane had done two other major flights. Back in the 1919/1920 range, there were three great flights that were done by the Vickers Vimy. One was from London to Cape Town, Africa, and one was from London to Sydney, Australia; there were many stops. The third flight was the first nonstop across the Atlantic.”
With Mark Rebholz as his copilot and navigator, Fossett made the nonstop flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Ireland, in July 2005. Following the original route exactly, navigating by sextant, compass and chart, they completed the flight in 18 hr, 15 min.
“I was the flight controls guy,” Fossett said. “I hung on to the yolk and manipulated the rudders for 18 hours—13 hours of it in instrument conditions. It was a long flight. The plane has two engines, and we had no real confidence that an engine wouldn’t quit. In those days, you couldn’t keep these airplanes aloft with one engine. If one of our engines had quit, which was a significant risk, the airplane would have slowly descended into the water. We wore our survival suits and had our life rafts at hand. If we went down, the plane would’ve been lost, but we probably would’ve been OK.”
Since Clifden has no airport, they arranged to land on the Connemara Championship Golf Links.
“We landed on the 8th fairway,” Fossett said.
Fossett says that no matter which sport he chooses, his goal has always been clear.
“I’m trying to make major achievements, especially in aviation,” he said.
Fossett’s idea has never been to profit from his adventures.
“I’m just trying to break even on my projects,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well. I broke even on the entire ballooning project, after sponsorship, and I got most of the cost covered by sponsors in both the GlobalFlyer and the sailing projects. I thought I was going to have to spend my own money on these things; how it’s ended up is that I just have to jumpstart these projects with my own money.”
In fact, when it comes to ballooning, Fossett actually came out ahead financially.
“On my final balloon flight, there was contingency insurance, like what they use a lot in golf tournaments, for making a hole in one,” he said. “A sponsor buys an insurance policy from one of the major insurance companies to pay a prize. An insurance company offered a $3 million prize for making the first solo balloon flight around the world, for the payment of a $500,000 premium. I knew my odds were a lot better than 6 to 1; I figured I had an even chance of succeeding. So I put up the half-million dollars, and collected the $3 million prize. With that alone, I turned a profit on all of my balloon flights—but had to pay taxes. That’s the one case where I actually made money.”
The biggest reason Fossett has successfully attracted sponsors is that they know that when he announces a project, he’s really going to do it. He’s also been prepared to complete the projects, even if it meant he was doing all the funding.
“I brace myself for that,” he said. “The eventuality of each of my projects is that, if necessary, I’ll finish it without sponsorship. A lot of people who are dependent on sponsorship try to announce projects in hopes of attracting sponsors, but usually they don’t, and they never get off the ground.”
Fossett’s efforts up to this point have resulted in numerous awards. He was inducted into the Balloon and Airship Hall of Fame (FAI-CIA) in June 1997. In 2002, after his solo balloon flight, he received the prestigious Gold Medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the Explorers Medal from the Explorers Club. In 1999, he received the Silver Buffalo, the highest volunteer award of the Boy Scouts of America, given for adults at the national level. Other awards include the Order of Magellan, Circumnavigators Club (2003); Médaille de l’Aéronautique République Française (March 2003); Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, U.S. Sailing Association (2001); Grande Médaille de l’Aéro Club de France (2002); Gold Medal, Royal Aero Club, United Kingdom (2002); Diplôme de Montgolfier, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1996); and the Harmon Trophy National Aeronautic Association (1998 and 2002).
Even with all those awards stacked up, he has no plans to slow down. He recently started a new project. He got his helicopter license this past spring and is intent on setting an absolute world record in rotorcraft.
“The records are beyond belief,” he said. “Like flying a helicopter over 1,900 nautical miles, nonstop. Wait a second; helicopters are only built to fly 400 miles! There’s no helicopter that even flies 500 miles. How did they fly 1,900 miles? My thought on it was, ‘Well, if they figured out how to fly the thing 1,900 miles, I must be able to figure out how to fly it 2,000 miles.’ So I’m working on that now, and actually, it is possible. The records are mostly very approachable, and it’s possible to figure out ways to break records in aviation.”
But that’s not all. In mid-October, he announced plans to raise the absolute land speed record to 800 mph—and beyond—driving a jet-powered racer across the Nevada desert, in 2007. Fossett commented that this record is the most dramatic of all world records.
“It’s the oldest and most famous record in world motorsport, with a fabulous history of great record holders,” he said.
Fossett said the land speed record is as old as the automobile itself, and that every “car crazy kid and adult” knows the history. He recalled the excitement when the first supersonic record was set nine years ago, and he’s excited at the prospect of driving through the speed of sound. Englishman Andy Green set the current record of 763 mph in 1997, driving the twin-turbojet powered Thrust SSC.
Fossett will challenge that speed in a car that looks like a single-seat jet fighter, sans wings. A single, after-burning J-79 turbojet, developing 22,650 lbs of thrust (45,200 hp) and formerly fitted to a USAF F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber, powers the car. The car weighs 9,000 pounds and is 47 feet long, and was originally designed and built by five-time land speed record-holder Craig Breedlove for an unsuccessful 1996/97 LSR campaign. The car is currently undergoing chassis modifications and aerodynamic development under Fossett’s team, led by project director and aerodynamicist Eric Ahlstrom.
Plans are for the car to be ready for the 2007 LSR season. Fossett will attempt to break the previous record on a dry Nevada lake between July and October, but says he’s prepared to carry on beyond 2007 if needed. The team has planned a progressive series of test milestones, and will gather and evaluate data as they gradually build up speed.
Fossett is seeking a title sponsor. He’s also discussing television documentary and publishing rights.
“Chasing the Wind”
Fossett says he’s set adventure goals that had nothing to do with the wind, but he’s definitely been able to play off the wind.
“There’s a transfer of knowledge from one sport to another,” he said. “I’ve learned to work with meteorologists very well. I know the right questions to ask, I understand the charts that they’re showing me, and I can make the right decisions, with the advice of good meteorologists. That mode of operation has brought me success in multiple sports. If I had to go to college again, I’d major in meteorology; it’s the most useful thing.”
A noble thought, but would it have foot the bills for all those adventures? And speaking of those adventures, seeing her husband through those difficult tasks hasn’t always been easy for Peggy, his wife of 38 years.
“This isn’t what she would prefer. She doesn’t want me to do these things, but she’s very supportive. She’s actually probably more relieved now. My most dangerous activity was the ballooning. Once that was finished, she was in a much better mood,” he laughs. “She actually got pretty involved in the GlobalFlyer project. She was there from the start to finish of those flights.”
It probably hasn’t always been a comfort to his wife, but Fossett acknowledges that although he gets involved in “risky” sports, he didn’t go into these sports because he wanted the risk.
“I’m not a thrill seeker,” he said. “You won’t catch me bungee jumping, for instance. For me, risk is something that is an undesirable aspect of my sports, and something that must be carefully managed. I like to surprise people with doing something that’s perceived to be too dangerous, and pulling it off. But nevertheless, my efforts are primarily devoted toward reducing the risk.”
Fossett believes two character traits have most helped him with his accomplishments.
“Self-confidence that it’s possible to do these things,” he said. “And with that self-confidence that even difficult tasks are possible, I’ve been willing to apply a great deal of persistence to actually get them done.”
He’s also aware of the virtues of a good team.
“I’ve had different teams in each of the fields that I’m involved in,” he said. “There’s very little overlap, because my teams are generally really top flight in those sports. I had excellent sailors sailing with me, and some of the best American balloonists on my sport team on my balloon projects. All the way through, I’ve had the support of top quality people.”
Fossett says other projects are in the works, but nothing he’s announcing at this time. One thing is certain. He doesn’t need to break any more records to prove he’s one of the world’s greatest sports adventurers. A look at his office in Chicago is proof.
“It’s kind of a mess,” he says. “I finally gave up putting my world record certificates on the wall. It’s like wallpaper now.”
To read part one of this article, visit [http://www.airportjournals.com]. To learn more about Steve Fossett, visit [http://www.stevefossett.com]. His autobiography, “Chasing the Wind: The Autobiography of Steve Fossett,” written with Will Hasley and published by Virgin Publishing, is available at [http://www.amazon.com].