- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett soared out over the Atlantic Ocean in a bony-looking experimental airplane yesterday on a quest to break the 25,000-mile record for the world’s longest aircraft flight.

Mr. Fossett squeezed into the tiny cockpit, kissed his wife goodbye and set out on the planned 3-day, nonstop journey, taking off from the Kennedy Space Center on a nearly three-mile runway that normally is used by space shuttles when they return to Earth.

His plane, the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, is made of lightweight carbon fiber and has a super fuel-efficient turbofan jet engine with a high thrust-to-weight ratio.

The takeoff was free of technical problems such as the major fuel leaks that had plagued Mr. Fossett’s nonstop solo flight around the globe last year and prevented him from taking off Tuesday.Still, there were some hair-raising moments.

Two seabirds hit his plane during takeoff but caused no damage, and the aircraft lifted off about 1,500 feet farther down the runway than expected. The temperature in the cockpit reached 130 degrees at one point, causing instruments to stop working temporarily.

“Takeoff was a bit scary, to say the least,” Mr. Fossett, 61, said hours later in a statement issued by his flight team. “I had to use most of the runway to get off the ground. This was particularly hairy, as I couldn’t have aborted even if I had wanted to.”

The birds apparently hit the leading edge of a wing and the nose of one of the fuel tanks, but those spots are well-reinforced, flight engineer Jon Karkow said.

Mr. Fossett’s goal is a nearly 27,000-mile trip, once around the world and then across the Atlantic Ocean again, with a landing Saturday outside London.

The 80-hour voyage would break the airplane distance record of 24,987 miles set in 1986 by the lightweight Voyager aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager, as well as the balloon record of 25,361 miles set by the Breitling Orbiter 3 in 1999.

In 2002, Mr. Fossett became the first person to fly solo around the globe in a balloon, and in March he became the first person to circle the Earth solo in a plane without stopping or refueling. That flight, also made in the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, lasted 67 hours.

Both that venture and the latest flight were financed by Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson.

The aircraft has 13 fuel tanks under its spindly wings, which extend 114 feet tip to tip. Drag parachutes are used to help it descend from its average cruising altitude of about nine miles or slow it down from a top speed of 285 mph. At takeoff, the plane had 18,000 pounds of fuel.

Mr. Fossett will take naps no longer than five minutes each and drink nutrition shakes while in the air. His plane is equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon, just in case.


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