Among the thousands of GWR records in our database, there are a select few that smack of pure, old-fashioned heroism – challenges that demand not only great skill and experience but also boundless reserves of courage. We think of Sir Edmund Percival Hillary (NZ) and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa (NPL), who achieved the First ascent of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. Or Lieutenant Jacques Piccard (CHE) and Lieutenant Donald Walsh (USA), who descended 10,911 m (35,797 ft) to the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean in their Trieste bathyscaphe on 23 January 1960 – the Deepest descent in the sea by a manned vessel.
Or Steve Fossett (USA).
By 2006, Steve had already proved himself an experienced adventurer – and record breaker. He’d carried out the First solo circumnavigation by balloon, circling the globe in the 140-ft-tall (42.6-m) Bud Light Spirit of Freedom in 13 days 8 hr 33 min. He’d covered 33,195 km (20,627 mi) en route – representing the Longest distance flown by a balloon solo. In 2004, he’d achieved the Fastest speed for an airship: 112 km/h (69.6 mph) in a Zeppelin Luftshifftechnik LZ N07-100 airship in the skies over Friedrichshafen in Germany. And in 2005, he’d performed the First solo circumnavigation by aircraft without refuelling, taking 67 hr 1 min to fly around the world in his jet-powered Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, starting and finishing at Salina in Kansa, USA.
The GlobalFlyer has a striking trimaran-like shape. The two long outboard booms contain the large fuel tanks essential for long-distance record attempts – Steve took off with almost 5 tonnes (11,000 lb) of fuel aboard. The shorter central section contains the cockpit, above which sits a jet engine:
On 8 February 2006, Steve set out again in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, this time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. His mission: to carry on flying longer than any aircraft in history. This time, he was packing 8.2 tonnes (18,100 lb) of fuel. He faced challenges right from the get-go, struggling to get the aircraft properly airborne before the end of the runway. Later, flying over India, he encountered heavy turbulence that threatened to break Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer apart. The real deal-breaker came right at the end, however; his aircraft developed a serious electrical malfunction in the plane’s generator. Left with only 15 minutes’ flying time – after which he would have been forced to ditch the plane – Steve brought the aircraft down in Bournemouth, Dorset, UK – around 280 km (170 mi) short of his destination: Kent International Airport. Two tyres burst on impact, but Steve remained unharmed; “It was too exciting a finish,” he quipped at the time, with remarkable understatement. No matter: he’d remained airborne continuously for 76 hr 45 min, a new world record for a non-stop aircraft flight – with just 90 kg (200 lb) of fuel remaining. He’d covered 42,469.4 km (26,389.3 miles) along the way. You can see Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer in action on that record-breaking flight here:
With all these records to his name (and more besides), one might think that Steve Fossett was immune to failure. Tragedy struck in 2007, however. At 8:45 a.m. on 3 September, Steve set out in a single-engine aeroplane from the private Flying-M Ranch in Nevada, not far from the border with California, apparently for a short trip over familiar territory. He never returned. The largest ground-and-air search ever staged in the USA kicked into gear, but difficult terrain and high winds hampered the rescuers’ efforts. Despite considerable efforts, including the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk beta site to make digital images of the terrain available for thousands of users to examine online, more than a year went by without news of Steve. Finally, on 29 September 2008, a hiker stumbled across three ID cards and more than $1,000 in cash in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains; the ID cards had belonged to Steve Fossett. On 1 October, airborne search teams detected ground wreckage in the area. It’s possible that Steve’s plane had encountered strong down-draughts – preventing it from climbing as usual – and that he’d had a fatal crash. He was presumed to have died on or shortly after the day he set out.
It was a dark day for the world of adventurers. But his roll-call of adventurous achievements is sure to keep the name of Steve Fossett alive for a long time to come.