This April 16, 2004 handout photo shows the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer during flight testing. Steve Fossett piloted the GlobalFlyer around the world without stopping for fuelling.
| Photo Credit: HO

There is a certain draw towards endurance sports that is quite unmatched by many others. It explains why many commoners take to running, cycling, and swimming, stretching their goals and trying to do more on an everyday basis. Some even combine all three disciplines, and try their hand at the Ironman triathlon.

When this interest becomes even more powerful, it enables individuals to become record-breakers and adventurers. American businessman Steve Fossett was one such individual and he went on to set hundreds of records in aviation and sailing.

Born in Jackson, Tennessee, U.S. on April 22, 1944, Fossett grew up in California. He studied economics and philosophy at Stanford University, and went on to become a successful commodity broker after completing his MBA at Washington University.

“Make up my mind”

Fossett was drawn towards endurance sports as he believed that it was something anybody could do. While he knew that it required “proper planning and training,” he was also convinced that it wasn’t entirely “dependent upon coordination or skill.” In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he added that “I’ve thrived on endurance sports because all I have to do is make up my mind to do it.”

And make up his mind he did, on umpteen occasions. Fossett first caught public attention in the 1990s during his highly publicised attempts to become the first person to go around the world alone on a balloon. While he had five failed attempts, he eventually succeeded in 2002 on a balloon called the “Spirit of Freedom.”

GlobalFlyer vs Voyager

In 2005, Fossett became the first person to fly solo around the world, unrefuelled. He did this on board the Virgin Atlantic’s GlobalFlyer aircraft, built by Rutan’s Scaled Composites. It was this same company that constructed the Voyager, which was the first aircraft to fly around the world, unrefuelled in 1986.

The similarities end there, though, as there were considerable differences between GlobalFlyer and Voyager. While Voyager was built for a crew of two, GlobalFlyer was designed as a single-seater. As a turbofan-powered aeroplane, GlobalFlyer enabled Fossett to achieve the feat in less than 3 days, a much shorter trip when compared to the nine days that were needed for the Voyager.

Fossett took off on the specialised plane that had 13 fuel tanks and a 2m cockpit from Salina, Kansas on February 28, 2005. The plane was also made of strong, but lightweight materials – to withstand the buffeting of the jet stream and cope with the high fuel load (fuel accounted for 86% of total weight at the beginning).

Not without hiccups

The flight wasn’t without hiccups, however, and there were a couple of setbacks in the first few hours itself. While the GPS navigation system failed, the plane also mysteriously lost 2,600lb of fuel. The latter meant that Fossett could have had to land short of his destination, and thus miss the record, had it not been for favourable jet streams that put him back on track. At the end of 67 hours, two minutes and 38 seconds, Fossett was back at Salina, completing a historic trip of over 30,000 km and becoming the first to go solo around the world, without refuelling his flight.

Steve Fossett leaves the cockpit after returning to Salina, Kansas on March 3, 2005. He became the first person to make a solo flight around the world without refueling.

Steve Fossett leaves the cockpit after returning to Salina, Kansas on March 3, 2005. He became the first person to make a solo flight around the world without refueling.
| Photo Credit:

Even though the flight was made possible because of technological advances, it was also as much about the human spirit – be it the physical exertion or the mental resistance. Fossett made the trip while surviving on water and diet chocolate milkshakes (he had 12 of these during the three-day voyage). The 2m cockpit definitely didn’t include a toilet, which meant that he had to urinate in bottles. As the only one on board, it also meant that he was at the controls throughout, going largely without sleep except for the occasional two-minute power naps.

Learning from everyone

In addition to embracing technology and a mindset for endurance sports, Fossett was able to succeed and set hundreds of records in aviation and sailing because he surrounded himself with the best in their fields when trying to achieve something. He planned his projects meticulously, leaving no detail to chance and learning from everyone around him.

Fossett, however, perished when on a scouting mission in western Nevada, probably for another adventure. He was reported missing on September 3, 2007 after his single-engine plane disappeared and a massive search effort was organised. The area’s remoteness and the rough terrain, however, meant that these efforts failed. Fossett was declared dead by a court in Chicago on February 15, 2008. The wreckage of the plane and what were believed to be his remains were discovered in October and DNA analysis confirmed that the bones were those of Fossett.

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