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Fossett makes history

Pilot completes first nonstop, global flight without refueling

By Michael Coren

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Fossett: "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time."

Fossett becomes the first person to fly an airplane solo round-the-world without refueling.

CNN's Rudi Bakhtiar looks at an historic flight. (March 03)
Steve Fossett
Dick Rutan
Richard Branson

(CNN) -- Flying from horizon to horizon, Steve Fossett completed the first solo, nonstop flight around-the-world without refueling on Thursday, landing gracefully in Kansas at 2:49 pm ET.

A cheering crowd gathered to usher the GlobalFlyer and its 60-year-old pilot into the record books, something that has become almost routine for Fossett in recent years. The aviator now holds three record-breaking circumnavigations of the globe, the two others by balloon and sailboat.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," Fossett said as he stepped out of the plane, his legs wobbly after nearly three days in the cockpit. "It has been a major ambition of mine."

The sometimes tense journey across three oceans and dozens of countries began in Salina, Kansas, on Monday evening. The 19,880 nautical-mile (36,818 kilometer) voyage took 67 hours and two minutes. It was financed by Fossett's longtime friend and investor, Richard Branson, who heads Virgin Atlantic Airways.

As GlobalFlyer approached the airport, Fossett deployed small parachutes, known as drogue chutes, to slow the craft down.

After touching down smoothly, Fossett taxied the plane toward a hangar and Branson waved a black-and-white checkered flag as the jet came to a stop. Fossett's flight team opened a bottle of champagne onto the runway.

GlobalFlyer was built by Scaled Composites, the same firm that designed and launched the world's first civilian manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, last year. That craft is being installed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum in Washington D.C., where GlobalFlyer could end up as well.

Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer and head of Scaled Composites, said the plane, and the pilot, performed admirably.

"If you want to rate that landing, it's at least an eight-and-a-half," Rutan told CNN. " I think (Fossett) did a phenomenal job of landing that airplane...Steve is a different animal than most of us."

Despite the successful homecoming, the GlobalFlyer encountered dark moments during its flight.

At one point, controllers thought the plane would run out of fuel far short of its target. Fossett and the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer team considered abandoning the trip when they were over Hawaii on Wednesday because the experimental plane came up about 2,600 pounds of fuel short after taking off. The jet burns 102 pounds of fuel per hour. The team speculated that fuel was vented from four tanks shortly after takeoff.

Fossett decided to press on because of favorable tail winds.

"If I have engine trouble, there will be no trouble with gliding," Fossett had said earlier in the day before landing.

When more data arrived from the aircraft, projections showed the fuel would propel the aircraft throughout its entire 25,000-mile trip.

"The range was going to be very close, said Jon Karkow of Scaled Composites. "We had a moment of panic." Fossett was expected to land with reserves in the plane's fuel tanks, flight officials said.

Fossett first passed over the United States today about 9 a.m., more than 60 hours after leaving the ground. The red-and-white plane, its long fuselage emblazoned with the Virgin Atlantic motif, cruised at speeds of more than 200 mph for most of the flight at an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13, 716 meters).

Fossett has proved himself to be a modern-day Magellan, the mariner whose expedition circumnavigated the globe from 1519 to 1521. In 2002, Fossett was the first solo balloonist to circle the globe nonstop, despite an on-board fire and dangerous winds. Two years later, he and his crew made the fastest circumnavigation on a sailing ship: 58 days.

The GlobalFlyer consists of three hulls attached to a 35-meter (114-foot) wing that measures more than half the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Twin "boom" hulls on either side of the cockpit hull each carry almost 2,500 kilograms (5,500 pounds) of fuel.

Atop the plane's 7-foot cockpit is a single jet engine.

Last year, Rutan led the first manned commercial flight to reach the edge of space. His SpaceShipOne won his team the $10 million X Prize, an award from a nonprofit foundation aimed at spurring civilian space flight.

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