Published online 1 March 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news050228-6


Round-the-world solo flight takes off

Virgin aircraft attempts to circumnavigate the globe.

GlobalFlyer on a test flight over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.GlobalFlyer on a test flight over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.© Conchango

As the slender white plane lifted off the Kansas airstrip, it marked the start of a daring attempt to make the first solo, non-stop, non-refuelled flight around the Earth.

The plane, called GlobalFlyer, lifted off at 0:50 GMT on 1 March and is designed to travel the 36,788 kilometres required to circumnavigate the world in just 80 hours. It was built by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and his Californian company Scaled Composites, and is piloted by balloonist and glider pilot Steve Fossett.

“It's a flying fuel tank.”

Bob Van der Linden
National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

From Salina, Kansas, the craft will attempt to coast on the west-to-east jet stream across the Atlantic. From there it will wing its way across North Africa and the Gulf, then over India, China and Japan before cruising across the Pacific and back into the United States. A last-minute route change means that Fossett will not fly over Europe, owing to the prevailing winds shifting southwards.

GlobalFlyer is a successor to Rutan's aircraft Voyager, which in 1986 became the first plane to fly around the world non-stop carrying two passengers. The craft took nine days to make the journey.

The challenge with a solo flight is to achieve the round-trip fast enough that the single pilot can stay mostly awake for the whole trip. GlobalFlyer is a jet, much faster than the propeller-driven Voyager, but Fossett will still have to endure a three-day journey.

"That's a long time to stay awake. I wouldn't want to do it," says Bob Van der Linden, an aircraft curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

GlobalFlyer looks very different from most jets, however, as it was created with one purpose in mind: to travel as far as possible on as little fuel as possible. It is exceptionally aerodynamic and light, and hence fuel-efficient.

The light stuff

The 13-metre craft is built something like a trimaran boat, with a central cockpit and single engine flanked by two huge booms that carry the landing gear and fuel.

Pilot Steve Fossett poses in the cockpit during flight testing.Pilot Steve Fossett poses in the cockpit during flight testing.© Conchango

The body of the plane is built from ultra-light composite materials such as graphite and epoxy, and the long, narrow wings are sculpted to give maximum lift. GlobalFlyer also packs fuel into every available space. "It's a flying fuel tank," Van der Linden says.

The plane was a cumbersome beast when it lifted off, with fuel taking up more than 80% of its 9,980 kilogram weight. If successful, it will land as a 1,520-kilogram shell. The aircraft will reach speeds in excess of 440 kilometres per hour, and will descend by inflating drag parachutes.

Because GlobalFlyer is relatively fragile and was so heavy at take-off, it is quite susceptible to bad weather. For this reason, the team has been waiting for several months for a good launch window.

Hopes are high that, weather permitting, GlobalFlyer will succeed at its first attempt. It won't be Rutan's first entry in the record books, however. He also designed the rocket SpaceShipOne, which blasted to fame last June when it became the first privately-funded spacecraft to reach space (see 'SpaceShipOne scrapes into history' ). 

National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC