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Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Steve Fossett
Steve Fossett's aircraft.

Some time this week, from a sleepy little airfield in Salina, Kansas one of the greatest endurance athletes and adventurers in history will attempt the most hallowed of human endeavors:

A First.

Steve Fossett will climb into a bizarre looking aircraft and attempt to fly around the world, non-stop, solo. If he succeeds, he will be the first human in history to do so.

There are three things to consider here: Steve Fossett, athlete and adventurer, The feat itself, and how it relates to you and I.

First, the athlete: Steve Fossett’s dossier reads like, well, like no other human in history. He has exhibited skill, courage and fitness in virtually every endurance sport on earth. Ironman? Yup, been there, done that- Hawaii, 1996. Leadville 100? Certainly, he did it in 1991. Iditarod sled dog race? Of course- he knocked it off in 1992. English Channel? Sure, he swam that back in 1985. 24 Hours of LeMans? ’93 and ’96. That is the easy stuff, a warm up for a man of Fossett’s stature.

Now, the hard stuff: Fossett is the owner of no less than sixteen prestigious awards for endurance, exploration, record setting and risk taking in such diverse endeavors as (I’m not kidding) high speed Zeppelin racing (Absolute Airship Speed Record, Friedrichshafen, Germany, 2004), and too many speed, distance, duration and altitude aviation records to mention. He is the master of powered flight ultra-records, ballooning records, glider records and other feats of vehicular excess. His sailing records are equally incredible. He is the veteran of brutal trans-oceanic solo crossings and incredible record attempts worthy of a Christopher Columbus or a Charles Lindberg.

Simply put, as an adventurer and athlete, Fossett is without peer. He holds current world records in 5 separate sports. He is the stainless-steel real deal.

Fosset looks at the globe the way you and I look at a four hour bike ride. It is just another thing to do.

Secondly, the feat itself: Weather permitting later this week, Fossett will climb into the odd looking airplane called the “Model 311” Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer. He will make a long, slow, dangerous take-off roll loaded with 10 tons of explosive fuel, and begin what is likely to be a perilous 80-hour high altitude circumnavigation of inner space. He will do it without landing or refueling. And if he succeeds, when he lands, the world will be a smaller place for it.

The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer is a frail looking contraption. Graceful, but frail. It looks like a strange amalgam of model rocket parts or flying sex toys. In flight, its wings bow upward as though they are ready to snap. The aircraft is made by Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s company. You may remember they built the “Voyager” aircraft that Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager piloted around the world.

The plane is made of carbon fiber, with the stiffest Aramid reinforced carbon fibers in those delicate, gossamer wings. It weighs only 3,350 pounds, a little over a ton and a half, but fully fueled weighs an astounding eleven tons- 22,000 pounds. That’s right, 83% of the aircraft’s take-off weight is explosive aviation fuel. In fact, Fossett’s biggest job in piloting the Model 311 is managing the fuel flow between the aircraft’s thirteen fuel tanks. As the plane consumes fuel, the flight characteristics change, so the fuel load has to be constantly shifted. Imagine a glider with a bunch of grizzly bears running around on the wings and fuselage.

Fossett’s coffin-like cockpit is 7 feet long, perched just below the relentless howl of a Williams turbofan jet engine. His head is about 8 feet from the intake. Have you ever lived close to an airport? How loud was that? Fossett has a lot of things to worry about during his flight but with a jet engine screaming eight feet from his head falling asleep probably isn’t one of them. The aircraft has no de-icing capability, it would be too heavy, so Fossett cannot fly in icing conditions, meaning he must thread the weather needle as he creeps around the world, 10,000 feet above most airliners. He will over-fly Montreal, London, Paris, Rome, Cairo, Bahrain, Karachi, Calcutta, Shanghai, Tokyo, Honolulu and Los Angeles during his flight, and to him, the lines drawn on a political map will mean nothing. It is one big world, one big obstacle, just something to fly around.

I recall a visit to the Berlin Wall in the 1980’s. I was given a tour of the incredible fortifications, mine fields, search lights, sniper towers, barbed wire and booby traps. I noticed with interest that the ducks seemed to come and go freely over the wall, with no political affiliations or their attendant restrictions. Steve Fossett will be like that. Free of earthly limitations, but a delicate inmate to whims of weather, physics and aerodynamics.

He sits in a custom molded carbon fiber seat that reclines. He will have to sit on cushions to see out of the airplane of take-off. I don’t have any idea where he goes to the bathroom. I shudder to think of it, I bet it will stink in there when he lands though.

Let’s review: A 61 year old guy locked in a multi-million dollar carbon fiber dildo doused in ten tons of gas flying in 100 degree below zero weather 9 miles high for three and a half days with no sleep and no toilet. Oh yeah, it can’t get ice on it either.

And finally, how does this relate to you and I?

Nope, I can’t relate either. But I am astounded. I’ve had a little postcard of Steve Fossett on my desk for years. What does this mean to you and me? Well, I’ll argue plenty.

First, Fossett is a role model who doesn’t accept limitations. We could use those kinds of guys. This is a man who doesn’t broker in excuses, only possibilities. Think of all of the times you and I have ruminated over something like doing a hard bike ride, entering a marathon or doing the local triathlon. For some reason, Fossett is wired to not feel those reservations. That is something to be studied and emulated. Realistically, if you are on this website reading this you are probably in the upper 1% of the earth’s population when it comes to “get up and go” anyway, but Fossett opens a whole new door through a set of barriers most people never even get near.

Some people bemoan Fossett because of his wealth and privilege. Not me. Truthfully, I envy and admire his skill and wisdom as a businessman. If I were as smart, I’d be as rich. But I’m not. The skill and determination that cause Fossett to dream up these things and make them real are the same things that helped make him wealthy. It wasn’t handed to him, he didn’t take it from someone else. Rather than look at him and say, “Rich guy pulling a pointless stunt to get attention” I say, “Great American living the American dream and pushing the limits of mankind and technology.” And it’s funny, depending on how you look at it, “pointless stunt” or “American dream” that kind of decides where you might be going too- fixing blame or aspiring to achieve. Glass half empty, glass half full. Your choice. Blame or achieve.

Sometime this week when the Model 311 struggles into the air bloated with fuel and straining on wings of black cloth laced with glue and plastic/ceramic thread coated in sleek white, Fossett, millionaire or not, will meet the great equalizers. He will roll the dice on the table of chance, luck, skill technology and courage. Only time will tell if comes up snake eyes. He’s dreamed the dream, done the planning, tried to stack the odds in his favor and the rest will be decided by nature and providence. He may set a record, he may crash land and survive, he may die in the freezing pacific or in a roiling fireball on takeoff.

I follow his effort as an incredible attempt by an exceptional personality to do something quite difficult, dangerous and extraordinary.

Fossett gets press because of the stratospheric level of his personal limits. He’s a better adventurer and endurance athlete than you and I, and that deserves notice. We would do well to learn. When was the last time you tired something new? When was the last time you had a first?

Learn more about this incredible adventure here:



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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