Steve Fossett | History | Smithsonian

Steve Fossett

On March 3, 2005, after 67 hours aboard his Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, he became the first person to fly alone around the world nonstop.

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Steve Fossett donated his Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer to the National Air and Space Museum. On March 3, 2005, after 67 hours aboard the craft, he became the first person to fly alone around the world nonstop. He spoke with our Katy June-Friesen.

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You've raced through air, water, snow and ice. How do these mediums compare?

Almost all of my endeavors are related to weather, so I can move easily from sport to sport because so much of what I'm doing is dependent on the wind. And over time I've worked with meteorologists and I understand what they're saying.

What got you interested in endurance sports and record-breaking?

Endurance sports are not dependent upon coordination or skill. Instead, it's something that just about anyone can do…with proper planning and training. So I've thrived on endurance sports because all I have to do is make up my mind to do it.

The Global Flyer website had more than 80 million hits the day you landed. Why do you think your adventures are so intriguing to the public?

My flights harken back to an earlier age of aviation when the public was very excited about what was going on--in the 20s and the 30s when major records were being set. I think that's why it has attracted the interest of so many people who want to share the excitement of this adventure.

Have there not been many changes in aviation recently?

Aviation is developing, but in a very subtle way to be more economically efficient, which isn't very dramatic and not exciting for the public as observers. Most of the firsts in aviation were done in the first half of the 20th century. The speed and altitude achievements were done in the 60s and 70s. They are not building airplanes to go as fast or as high anymore, and that's disappointing to those of us who look to aviation for excitement. So I'm involved in the adventures that used to take place.

Recently you've been flying a glider. What new projects are you working on?

Our Perlan Project is to fly a glider into the stratosphere. These attempts will take place in September in southern Argentina. I'm flying with my copilot, Einar Enevoldson; we hope to fly to 62,000 feet.

What is the previous record?

The previous record is 49,000 feet, set by Bob Harris in 1986. He maxed out the altitude record for gliders using normal oxygen equipment—nobody can fly any higher than he flew. Our approach is to use full-pressure suits. They're very much like space suits. We're not restricted on altitude when wearing a full pressure suit.

One of your partners in this is NASA.

We have a Space Act agreement with NASA. We're collecting data and evaluating the turbulence patterns at these high altitudes. Aircraft like Global Hawks and U-2s are much more fragile than our glider and they're very much at risk in these high-altitude wave patterns. We can actually fly into these waves and not be afraid of our glider breaking up.

You’ve tried several times to break this altitude record. What makes it so difficult to do?

We have to fly at the time of the year when this weather pattern occurs, which is late winter. We've made attempts for two seasons in New Zealand, and in each of those seasons there was not a single day in which we had the required weather pattern. We tried for one season in the Sierra Nevada of California. I think that this southern area of Argentina is exactly the right place and we'll have our best chance this year in September.

Of all the adventure "frontiers," why are you now focusing on aviation for your future projects?

I'm very stimulated by aviation and it's a very large field. I can identify things that either haven't been done or records which can be broken. Also I'm not really limited by age. Even at 62 I have, I think, many years in front of me in which I can pursue aviation records.

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