Steve Fossett (1944-2007)

His adventurous spirit was a throwback to aviation’s Golden Age.

Steve Fossett at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in 2006. (Dane Penland/ NASM)
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In February 15, pilot-adventurer Steve Fossett was declared legally dead by a Chicago judge five months after he disappeared in his single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon. Fossett had taken off from a ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton and was believed to have planned a two-hour flight. A five-state search by the Civil Air Patrol, the Nevada Air National Guard, helicopter crews from a nearby Navy base, and dozens of private pilots failed to find any trace of Fossett's aircraft.

I had the good fortune of meeting Fossett in 2006 at a National Aviation Hall of Fame event shortly before his name was enshrined there. He was friendly and energetic and happy to answer questions about any of his multiple adventures. Fossett had collected 93 records in aircraft and 23 in sailboats before he disappeared last September, and though he seemed eccentric to many who watched the records pile up, to students of aviation history Fossett was a throwback to another, more adventurous era.

Fossett became famous for his flights around the world. He was the first to make the trip alone by balloon in 2002, a feat that took five tries before the final, successful two-week journey. Three years later, he did it again in an airplane—the Burt Rutan-designed, Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer—again alone, without stopping or refueling.

Few of us hear a voice like the one that urged Fossett to get back in that cramped Global Flyer cockpit in 2006 for the longest aircraft flight in history: 25,766 miles. In an age when many travelers routinely fly nonstop halfway around the globe, such a record seemed a mere technicality. But the aviation fans of the Golden Age would have cheered him on, as they did 80 years ago every time one globe-girdling record gave way to the next. Three years before Charles Lindbergh made the world airplane-crazy by crossing the Atlantic nonstop and alone, round-the-world flying got its start. In 1924, pilots flying four Douglas biplanes, aptly named World Cruisers, became the first to make it around the world by air; it took them 175 days. That record was surpassed in 1929 when circumnavigation was achieved in a mere 21 days—by an airship, the Graf Zeppelin. This made a pilot-adventurer named Wiley Post restive, and he reclaimed the round-the-world title for heavier-than-air craft in a Lockheed 5C Vega called Winnie Mae, first in 1931, when he and a navigator cut the time to 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes, and again to great acclaim in 1933, when he alone shaved a full day off his own record. Not a soul would have questioned why he did it.

The voice that Fossett heard is the same one that whispered to Howard Hughes in 1938, when he circled the globe in three days (plus 9 hours and 17 minutes), and to Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager, who in 1987 one-upped them all by orbiting without stopping or refueling in the Burt Rutan-designed Voyager (9 days, 3 minutes, 31 seconds). In the space shuttle era, when astronauts routinely circle the Earth in 90 minutes, Fossett's in-the-atmosphere, slow-by-comparison, around-the-world flights seem aeronautically insignificant. But the spirit behind them—to push farther and faster—is the same urge that inspired aviation's most legendary pilots. Fossett carried their standard forward, and his record-setting aircraft, the Global Flyer, took its place at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in 2006 where the Winnie Mae and Voyager also reside.

When I met Fossett at the National Aviation Hall of Fame event, he had a few months earlier achieved the world altitude record in a glider. (He soared to 50,699 feet in a DG-500 glider with copilot Einar Enevoldson.) When I asked him about that flight, he broke into a million-watt grin describing what it had been like in the cockpit of that glider, riding the mountain wave that would take him to the top.

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