SALINA, Kan. - An audacious attempt to fly solo around the world without refueling began yesterday as millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett piloted the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer toward Europe.
The experimental 3-hulled aircraft rolled down the 2-mile main runway at Salina Municipal Airport - heavy with fuel and anticipation - until its single jet engine finally lifted the ungainly craft into a clear sky just after sunset at 6:47 p.m. CST.
Hundreds of spectators at the airport, a former military facility that boasts one of North America's longest airstrips, braved the 38-degree temperature and 25-mile-an-hour wind to get a glimpse of history in the making.
They cheered as GlobalFlyer began a 23,000-mile trek that is intended to end where it began within 65-80 hours. Mr. Fossett could return to Salina on Thursday with another aviation record in hand.
Takeoff, originally planned for 5:45 p.m. CST, was delayed because of strong crosswinds.
"I'm a little bit of a nervous person and I think perhaps it's justified in this case," Mr. Fossett said as takeoff approached. "The takeoff indeed is very scary. To take off in a plane this heavy with the potential consequences of something going wrong."
GlobalFlyer had never taken off fully loaded, as it did today, with the 3,350-pound airplane hauling 18,000 pounds of aviation fuel.
"I will be the ultimate test pilot. I have a lot to worry about. It's a major endeavor," Mr. Fossett said.
Mission control director Kevin Stass said Mr. Fossett would fly over Chicago, Detroit, and Canada before heading across the Atlantic late Monday night.
As of midnight EST, Mr. Fossett was approaching Montreal at a speed of 311 knots, or about 358 mph.
The route wtll take him over Africa, the Middle East, India, China, and the Pacific Ocean.
To meet the conditions for a circumnavigation of the globe, set by Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), Mr. Fossett must pass over 80 way points, which have now been filed with the federation.
"With modern technology, we've got GPS [global positioning system] on board which monitors the plane's position regularly," Mr. Stass said.
Besides the nonstop record, Mr. Fossett will attempt to break seven other aviation records, including the longest flight by a jet aircraft. The record is more than 12,000 miles, set by a B-52 bomber in 1962.
Mr. Fossett plans to fly at an average speed of 287.5 mph and rely on the jet stream to stretch his fuel. The GlobalFlyer will have about 15 percent extra fuel to allow for weather conditions or changes to the flight plan, said Jon Karkow, chief engineer for the flight.
Anticipation grew throughout the morning and afternoon, as the ground crew completed final preparations, fueling the little plane and moving it into position at the end of runway 35. Attention then turned to fueling and provisioning the chase plane, which will trail the GlobalFlyer throughout the mission - except for quick stops for refueling in Gander, Newfoundland, and other points.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, who is financing the flight, planned to be in the chase plane for the first day and on the last leg. Mr. Branson, who holds aviation records in his own right, gave Mr. Fossett his wristwatch, which has an emergency beacon device, to wear for the flight.
"We want you and the watch back in one piece at the end," Mr. Branson quipped.
People with Internet access can follow the flight minute by minute on the project Web site, www.globalflyer.com. It includes a live tracking map, updated every 5 minutes, showing the aircraft's position, heading, speed, and altitude.
Cameras located in Mission Control, the GlobalFlyer cockpit, and elsewhere also will provide live video as the flight unfolds.
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