Published online 13 February 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060213-1

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Record-breaking aviator survives emergency landing

GlobalFlyer achieves longest ever flight despite last-minute power failure.

The GlobalFlyer plane landed in victory on Saturday, after completing the longest solo, non-stop flight.The GlobalFlyer plane landed in victory on Saturday, after completing the longest solo, non-stop flight.© Virgin Atlantic

He almost ran out of runway when taking off in Florida. High over India, turbulence came close to breaking the plane apart. Minutes away from his scheduled landing, a power failure forced an emergency descent. Yet despite these ordeals, aviator Steve Fossett has clocked up another record: the longest ever non-stop flight.

Fossett touched down on 11 February, a little earlier than expected, in Bournemouth on England's south coast, bursting two tyres and struggling to see through his ice-covered cockpit window. Plans for a landing in nearby Kent had to be abandoned after the generator of the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer malfunctioned. But Fossett had achieved his record (see 'Plane poised for record-breaking flight'), and his flight of 41,467 kilometres was immediately confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Tricky take-off

“I believe that this record will stand for many, many years to come,”

Richard Branson
chairman of Virgin Atlantic

The mission pushed Fossett's plane to its limits. Over 80% of the plane's 10-tonne mass was taken up by fuel, forcing the organizers to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 4.5-kilometre runway is one of just a few in the world long enough to allow the craft to gain enough speed to take off, yet Fossett says that he still struggled to get airborne. The craft also hit two birds on take-off, but was not damaged.

Once aloft, the GlobalFlyer was hindered by a weak jet stream across America and the Atlantic and severe turbulence over Asia, which threatened to damage the lightweight craft. The trip was also a physical challenge for Fossett. Temperatures topped 50 °C at times, and he had little sleep during the 76 hours he was airborne.

Fossett's record, which eclipses the 40,212-kilometre journey by the Voyager aircraft in 1986, is the latest in a long line of aviation firsts. He holds 9 records for glider flights and in 2002, on his sixth attempt, became the first person to complete a solo round-the-world balloon flight.

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"I believe this is Steve's greatest achievement to date and we are all absolutely delighted that he has achieved this remarkable feat," says Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic who flew with Fossett on a failed balloon record attempt. "I believe that this record will stand for many, many years to come."

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chairman of Virgin Atlantic