Fuel loss plagues around-the-world flight

GlobalFlyer has insufficient fuel to make it around the globe; mission may be abandoned. Photo: Cruising with GlobalFlyer

A daring mission to circumnavigate the globe in a single flight may have to be abandoned, after the aircraft suffered a massive loss of fuel shortly after takeoff on Tuesday.

GlobalFlyer took flight from Salina, Kansas, on Tuesday with a one-man crew, pilot Steve Fossett. The goal is to complete the mission in 80 hours and make aviation history with the first solo nonstop flight around the world. But less than four hours after takeoff, the plane's fuel tank registered a 2,600-pound loss of fuel, mission control said on Wednesday.

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Without favorable tailwinds, the remaining fuel is insufficient to complete the flight, according to airline Virgin Atlantic, sponsor of the attempt.

"Steve is now literally at the mercy of the winds," Project Manager Paul Moore said in a statement.

Fossett needs an average tailwind speed of 58 knots to complete the mission, the aircraft's controllers said. He is currently flying eastward over the Pacific Ocean at about 45,000 feet with a tailwind of 100 knots that will get him at least as far as Hawaii, they said at a press conference on Wednesday. In the next several hours, Fossett will decide whether to land there or continue on.

Beyond Hawaii, the tailwind is expected to drop to no more than 40 knots all the way to Los Angeles. Fossett's decision to continue past Hawaii hinges on the success of a critical procedure to ensure that fuel drains properly through the GlobalFlyer's 17 tanks.

The setback was a blow to Fossett, who's been in the air for more than 40 hours. But he felt a little better since flying over Japan and deciding not to abandon the mission there. "Confident isn't the right word to use now," he said during the press conference. "I'm hopeful this is all going to work out."

It's unclear whether the initial fuel loss was caused by a leak or by evaporation, but the aircraft now appears to be retaining the remaining fuel at a normal rate. The GlobalFlyer team had expected some evaporation, but not so much.

The custom-built plane was designed by Burt Rutan, the designer of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne.

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