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Published: Wednesday, 3/2/2005

Fossett on pace to set aviation records

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR

SALINA, Kan. - Fortified with diet milkshakes, pilot Steve Fossett yesterday steered the GlobalFlyer jet plane toward the midpoint in an epic, 23,000-mile attempt at the first solo, nonstop flight around the world without refueling.

"Everything is going very well," Mr. Fossett told his mission control center at Kansas State University in Salina, where he took off on Monday. "I'm very happy with the situation and I think we've got a good chance."

If all goes well, Mr. Fossett will make a triumphant return to Salina around midday tomorrow after breaking seven aviation records, according to mission control projections,

One record was approaching as GlobalFlyer soared across Northern Africa and eastward toward the point where it will break a 43-year-old mark for the longest nonstop flight by a jet. A U. S. Air Force B-52 bomber set the existing record of 12,000 miles in 1962.

As GlobalFlyer's single turbofan jet engine consumed fuel, the $1.5-million experimental plane grew lighter and gradually rose to altitudes higher than commercial jets usually fly. By midafternoon, as Mr. Fossett flew across Egypt, his plane was climbing toward a maximum approved altitude of 47,000 feet - almost 9 miles.

In the thinner air, GlobalFlyer will make headway more efficiently, using less fuel. Mission control said Mr. Fossett had plenty of fuel left to complete the journey.

Speed also picked up, thanks to a boost from the jet stream, a river of air that whips along at high altitudes. Ground speed was approaching 400 mph.

If the jet stream's boost continues, Mr. Fossett might complete the mission at "incredible speeds," said Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic airlines, who is funding the flight. Organizers originally said the flight could take up to 80 hours. They now think 66 hours will do it.

Mr. Fossett got a scare early in the flight as GlobalFlyer passed north of Detroit and into Canadian airspace. The plane's onboard navigation device, which relies on signals from the Geo Positioning Satellite system, malfunctioned.

"This is very serious," Mr. Fossett told mission control. "This is my sole source of navigation." Both Mr. Fossett and GlobalFlyer's autopilot rely on information from the GPS system to steer the plane.

The problem disappeared after about two hours, leaving ground controllers baffled. They speculated that interference from some other electronic device caused the problem.

Mr. Fossett has had a silent companion on the flight in the form of a Cessna Citation X that acts as the chase plane, shadowing GlobalFlyer to keep watch and provide emergency help in case of a crash. Mr. Branson rode in the plane for a few hours on Monday, and will return just before touchdown tomorrow.

Although the Citation can fly faster, it has to stop for fuel, and then needs time to catch up with GlobalFlyer.

Live cockpit video beamed to mission control - available at www.globalflyer.com - showed Mr. Fossett, 60, clad in a silver astronaut-style jumpsuit - alert, busy checking fuel levels in GlobalFlyer's 13 tanks, and occasionally smiling.

However, Mr. Fossett can engage the autopilot and nap. He also may use it briefly at other times, such as when going to the bathroom.

GlobalFlyer has been stripped to the very basics to save weight, and there is no toilet. The cramped cockpit, smaller than a telephone booth, restricts the pilot's movements. It is pressurized and cannot be opened during regular flight.

Mr. Fossett will use sealable containers as a toilet, but is trying to minimize that need with a special diet. "What I eat on board is actually going to be diet milk shakes," he said at a preflight briefing. "I found them to be very low-residue and filling."

The millionaire adventurer's favorite flavor: chocolate.

Contact Michael Woods at:

mwoods@nationalpress.com.



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