March 02, 2005


So Steve Fossett is within reach of setting a distance record for continuous solo airflight in a jet. He's within 900 aeronautical miles of passing the 12,000-mile mark set in 1962.
But that's not his goal.
If you hadn't heard by now, Fossett is trying to be the first to fly all the way around the world uninterrupted as a solo pilot in the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer.
There's really no way to tell from the above photo, but Fossett is a sardine in that vehicle. The fit is so tight, he can barely clear his head.
But he's used to cramped quarters. After all, he was the first to fly a balloon around the world solo.
He's on the verge at the moment of crossing over China's east coast.
Elapsed Journey time at this point: 34 hours 31 minutes. Distance covered approximately 11,094 nautical miles.
After this, he'll be hopping over Japan before the long, final leg across the Pacific, passing over the Midway Islands and Honolulu, before re-entering the United States just south of Los Angeles. Last stop, hopefully, will be his point of origin, Salina, Kan.

By late Tuesday, the aircraft had consumed 25 percent of its 18,000 pounds of fuel, and Fossett had downed at least three diet chocolate milkshakes. The jet took off after sunset Monday from Salina.

News reports say that:

Fossett was in "remarkably good spirits for someone who's been awake now for, pretty continuously, over 24 hours," project manager Paul Moore said in an update posted on Fossett's Web site.

Fossett can use autopilot when he needs rest. His mission control in Salina constantly monitors his altitude and course positioning and can call him by phone if something goes wrong.

Fossett estimated he will complete the 23,000-mile journey at midday Thursday.

Project manager Paul Moore said Fossett reached his cruising altitude of 45,000 feet over the Atlantic instead of over Saudi Arabia, as originally expected, because of better-than-expected performance of the GlobalFlyer.

Why do I care?

Well, I met Fossett in 1991 when the Chicago stockbroker was then 46. He was trying to mush a dog team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And he wasn't doing a very good job of it.

He had rented a team from a dog owner, a musher named Bruce Johnson. Johnson had agreed to lease a team to Fossett under the condition that he spend at least a month getting ready for the grueling event across some of North America's most forbidding terrain.

Fossett did just that, training as hard as he could in an attempt to bond with the dogs and get them to heed his commands.

That worked okay until about a week into the race.

I was stationed to cover the back end of the race for The Anchorage Times in McGrath. That's where all the great stories can be found. Mushers losing dogs. Sleds broken almost in two by treacherous conditions. Just great gristle to write about.

One day while hanging out in the town's only restaurant, Rosie's, Johnson got word that Fossett and his team were stopped on the trail in the small village of Nikolai. The dogs were refusing to run.

Johnson asked if I and my photographer wanted to rent snow machines and ride the 54 miles back down the trail. Absolutely, we said.

We got to the checkpoint about two and a half hours later, frozen to the bone, only to find Fossett with a wan smile and a team full of dogs laying in a row in the snow. They were done following this cheechako from Chicago.

See, unlike a balloon or an airplane or a sailboat, you can't really "fix" a dog team that doesn't want to run. And when they've decided that the guy on the sled runners doesn't know what the hell he's doing, it might as well be Miller Time.

Johnson got the dogs up and ready, fed and watered them and then mushed them back to McGrath, where Fossett scratched from the race. I remember giggling at this guy who thought he could just parachute into the toughest race on earth.

But then he came back in 1992 and did it again. This time he was better prepared. In the end, he took more than two weeks, but he finished the race in 47th place. I gave him huge credit for that.

Over the years, I tracked his aviation attempts. Then I found out about his other conquests. He ran the Ironman Triathalon in 1996. He cross-country skied from Aspen to Vail in 59 hours in 1998. He sailed a boat in 2001 from Miami to New York in 53 hours. By the time I'd met him, he had swam across the English Channel.

It's funny; in an age when nothing amazes us anymore, a guy like Fossett comes along and quietly puts up a record of achievements that can stand with the greatest of adventurers.

Just don't try telling that to those dogs.

Posted by Jeff at March 2, 2005 07:59 AM