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Steve Fossett and GlobalFlyer prepare for take-off

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Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett will - conditions permitting - lift off from Salinas, Kansas, today in what he hopes will be the first non-stop, jet-powered circumnavigation of the world without refuelling. He hopes to complete the 23,000-mile journey aboard his Scaled Composites Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer in around 80 hours - assuming he ever gets off the ground.

The GlobalFlyer has never been tested with the full fuel load which will make up 83 per cent of the take-off weight. Fossett admitted to a press conference: "It will be very scary to take off in a plane this heavy."

The GlobalFlyer

He can, however, take comfort from the fact that the aircraft is the brainchild of Burt Rutan, he of the Ansari-X-prize winning SpaceShipOne. Rutan specialises in composite aircraft construction, and designed the propellor-driven Voyager which - with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager at the controls - flew non-stop around the globe in 1986.

Rutan has brought this experience to bear on the GlobalFlyer, as the blurb explains:

The aircraft is a trimaran-like construction with two huge external 'booms' which hold the landing gear, and 5,454 pounds of fuel on either side of the pilot's cockpit in the centre on top of which is the single Williams turbofan jet engine. The construction materials used for the structure of this aircraft are all graphite/epoxy. The stiffest carbon fibers are used in the construction of the wings, and the skin is a sandwich of graphite/epoxy and Aramid honeycomb.

Fossett will spend the entire mission in a pressurised seven-foot cabin, allowing himself just five minutes' sleep at a time - not considered a problem for the adventure vet whose previous jaunts include the failed 1990s attempt to circle the globe in a balloon. On that occassion, he was accompanied by GlobalFlyer sponsor Richard Branson. The British entrepreneur has promised Fossett free Virgin Airlines flights for life if he completes the latest challenge, and told the pilot: "I want you and it back in one piece."

Whether or not he gets back in one piece depends very much on a successful take-off and ascent to a relatively calm cruising altitude of up to 45,000ft. Any unexpected or heavy turbulence while fully loaded with fuel could spell disaster for GlobalFlyer, a prospect which provoked Fossett to note: "It is a major endeavour and I am willing to take that risk." ®

GlobalFlyer's vital stats

  • Wing Span: 114ft
  • Wing Area: 400ft squared
  • Length: 44.1ft
  • Height: 13.3ft
  • Gross Weight: 22,000 lbs
  • Empty Weight: 3,350 lbs

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