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:
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
Learn more about this incredible adventure