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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Around the world in 80 hours goal of aviation adventurer

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR

Aviation legend Wiley Post flew into history in 1933 with the first solo flight around the world. It took almost eight days, including 11 stops for fuel, food, the bathroom, and a little sleep.

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett is preparing to write another chapter in aviation s record book with the first solo nonstop flight around the world without refueling.

Jules Verne, who invented science fiction, foresaw such voyages in an 1873 novel that sent Phileas Fogg around the world in 80 days in a hot air balloon. Mr. Fossett, no stranger to balloon flights himself, expects to circumnavigate the globe in about 80 hours.

"This will require all of my abilities as a pilot," Mr. Fossett said. "It will test my endurance, and it will demonstrate the finest in lightweight aircraft construction and improvements in jet engine fuel efficiency that have never before been achieved. I am supported by a team and the technology to pull it off."

Mr. Fossett will fly toward the history books in one of the world s most exotic-looking aircraft, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., designed it.

Mr. Rutan, a noted aerospace engineer, designed the SpaceShipOne rocket plane. It won the $10 million X Prize last October, becoming the first private vehicle to fly into space. Mr. Rutan also designed Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop without refueling. Jeana Yeager and Mr. Rutan s brother, Dick, piloted Voyager on that historic nine-day flight in 1986.

Right after SpaceShipOne s success, Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced plans for a commercial spaceline. Called Virgin Galactic Airways, would fly tourists into space, where each will officially earn astronaut wings, within a few years. Fares start at $208,000.

Although GlobalFlyer may be the world s most efficient jet plane, and does showcase innovations in design, its technology is not expected to have immediate commercial uses or engender a follow-on industry.

Mr. Branson is bankrolling the GlobalFlyer mission, in addition to serving as backup pilot in case Mr. Fossett drops out for health or other reasons.

By all accounts, however, Mr. Fossett, almost 61, is fit, ready for takeoff early in February, not concerned about going days without sleep, and savoring another plunge into the international media limelight.

"I ve flown that long before in a balloon without sleep," Mr. Fossett said at a January briefing after piloting GlobalFlyer into its new home base at Municipal Airport in Salina, Kan. "We re protected by autopilots in case I nod off," he added. "It s a difficult flight. I believe I can do it."

Mr. Fossett, who holds several aviation records, may be best known for a daring series of attempts to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe alone in a balloon. One ended when a thunderstorm plunged Mr. Fossett into the shark-infested waters of the Coral Sea off Australia. He finally succeeded in 2002 with the Spirit of Freedom balloon in a flight that took nearly 15 days.

Planners chose Salina as takeoff and hopefully landing point because its 12,300-foot runway is one of the longest and smoothest in North America.

"We need a very smooth runway because with all the fuel on board the wings tend to bend a lot, and we can t have them flexing too much as the plane travels over bumps," explained mission controller Kevin Stass.

Once a military facility, the Salina airport is used by the Kansas National Guard, commercial aircraft firms, and Kansas State University College of Technology and Aviation.

Mission control center will be located at the college, with students lending a hand. It will track the flight and weather conditions along the route, coordinate search and rescue efforts in case Mr. Fossett must bail out, and keep in touch with Mr. Fossett by radio and e-mail.

GlobalFlyer s appearance is a jaw-dropper, and provoked whistles a few weeks ago when featured on the cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, the flying world s bible. It looks like 2 airplane fuselages, or bodies, fastened to an enormous wing.

"For an airplane that only weighs 3,300 pounds empty, the GlobalFlyer is large," said Jon Karkow, chief project engineer and test pilot for Scaled Composites. "Its wingspan is nearly the same as an Airbus A-320 or a Boeing 737-700. It s so wide [wingtip to wingtip] that it must be moved out of the hanger sideways." The landing gear swivels so the plane can be pushed in any direction.

The wing, 114-feet from tip to tip, gives GlobalFlyer great "lift," a natural tendency to rise into the air, glide, and stay airborne. Mr. Karkow, who flew several test flights, said the plane glides so well that it won t descend for a normal landing. To land, the pilot must deploy two "drag" parachutes that billow behind.

In building GlobalFlyer, Mr. Rutan and his associates borrowed heavily from Voyager s design. They crafted it almost entirely from light, superstrong honeycombs of carbon fiber and epoxy material. Unlike Voyager, it holds just one person and uses a single jet engine rather than a propeller.

GlobalFlyer s fuel system, which includes 13 separate fuel tanks, is the most complicated feature on the aircraft and perhaps the biggest concern. "Getting fuel reliably from the tanks to the engine was quite a challenge," said Mr. Karkow. The fuel is a special blend that stays liquid at frigid temperatures GlobalFlyer will encounter at altitudes that could reach 45,000 feet.

In truth, the aircraft is almost a flying fuel tank.

On its world-flight takeoff, fuel will account for about 83 per cent of GlobalFlyer s weight. The Voyager s takeoff weight was 72 per cent fuel.

Mr. Karkow said the plane does not fly well when heavy, especially in bumpy air. It will be heaviest at low altitudes, such as right after takeoff when its fuel tanks are full and where turbulence is common. As fuel burns, the plane will gradually ascend to higher, smoother altitudes.

Planners must strike a critical balance in deciding how much fuel to load. They need enough to complete the flight without making GlobalFlyer too heavy.

The two dozen test flights have gone surprisingly well for a high-performance aircraft, Mr. Karkow noted. However, almost all have been done with fuel loads smaller than needed for the global flight.

Mr. Fossett will sit in a crammed, Spartan cockpit designed to save weight rather than for comfort. About the size of a telephone booth, it is in the center fuselage right below the jet engine and right behind a main fuel tank. That is a noisy and dangerous position.

The cabin is pressurized, with a small bubble canopy that the pilot looks through during takeoff and landing. A reclining seat and an autopilot system enable Mr. Fossett to catch naps. He will be busy, however, monitoring the fuel system so that the plane remains balanced and stable as the fuel tanks empty. There is a parachute and other emergency gear, plus water and military-style food.

To set the record for the first solo, nonstop, unrefuelled circumnavigation of the world, Mr. Fossett must meet conditions established by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which sanctions aviation records. FAI rules state that the record attempt must start and finish at the same airfield and cross all meridians of the globe. The trip must cover a distance equal in length to the Tropic of Cancer, an imaginary line 23 degrees north of the equator. It is about 23,000 miles long.

Winging through the skies at more than 285 mph, the GlobalFlyer should finish in less than 80 hours.

Mr. Stass will choose the exact flight route, based on wind and other conditions just before takeoff. It will depend on the twists and turns of the jet stream, that high altitude river of fast-flowing air that gives aircraft a fuel-saving nudge on west-to-east flights.

The GlobalFlyer will follow the jet stream across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom. Mr. Fossett then will steer southeast across the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf before nosing east toward Pakistan, India, China, and Japan.

He then faces a long, dangerous flight across the Pacific Ocean, with little hope of quick rescue if GlobalFlyer ditches. After passing Hawaii, the plane will head for the West Coast and a landing at Salina.

The flight s mission control is looking for "spotter stations," individuals and organizations along the route who can spot GlobalFlyer in flight and send a Web cam feed. Volunteer by e-mail to spotters@virginatlanticglobalflyer.com.

Contact Michael Woods at: mwoods@nationalpress.com.



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