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Thursday, 03 March 2005, 8:15pm

Fossett Breaks Nonstop Solo Flight Record

By JOHN MILBURN, Associated Press Writer

SALINA, Kan. - First by balloon, now by plane, Steve Fossett is once again a 'round-the-world record holder.

AP Photo: Fossett and Branson

The millionaire adventurer on Thursday became the first person to fly around the world alone without stopping or refueling, touching down in central Kansas after a 67-hour, 23,000-mile journey that appeared endangered at times by a troubled fuel system.

Fossett, who failed five times before successfully circumnavigating the globe solo in a balloon, needed just one try to make the trip in a plane. He holds many other records as a balloonist, pilot and sailor.

Fossett's GlobalFlyer, designed by the same engineer who came up with the Voyager aircraft that first completed the trip in 1986 with two pilots aboard, touched down on the center line at the Salina airport at 1:50 p.m. Thursday.

Immediately after leaving the cockpit, a jubilant Fossett hugged his wife, Peggy, and was congratulated by Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic founder who financed the flight.

"That was something I wanted to do for a long time, a major ambition," Fossett said.

Although he looked surprisingly fresh, the millionaire from Chicago said he was tired and ready for a bath and a good meal. He planned to rest before attending a celebration for the crew and supporters Thursday night in Salina.

"Believe me, it's great to be back on the ground," Fossett said. "It's one of the hardest things I've ever done."

Branson grabbed a bottle of champagne from Fossett, shook it up and sprayed down the pilot.

"It's been a magnificent trip," Branson said. "He was obviously over the moon about it."

Fossett said he survived on 12 milkshakes and water during the flight. He said his main problems were headaches, which went away when he drank water, and a lack of sleep. Fossett used bottles as his bathroom.

AP Photo: GlobalFlyerHe said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who watched the flight on television and the Internet, and by the tens of thousands who were at the airport to watch him land. But he insisted his adventures were not publicity stunts.

"I would do these things if nobody was paying attention," Fossett said.

There had been some doubt Wednesday whether Fossett would make it back to Salina. Fuel sensors in the custom-built plane's 13 tanks differed from readings of how quickly its single jet engine was burning fuel, forcing Fossett's crew to assume that 2,600 of the original 18,100 pounds of fuel "disappeared" early in the flight.

It was not clear whether there was an actual leak or just a problem with the sensors, Fossett's team said.

AP Photo: GlobalFlyerFacing a decision near Hawaii about whether to land or press ahead over the vast Pacific Ocean for the U.S. mainland, Fossett told his team, "Let's go for it." Hours later, pushed by strong tail winds that left him with enough in the tanks to finish the global trek, he safely crossed over Los Angeles.

Fossett chose Salina because he needed a long runway for the takeoff and landing. The runway in Salina — once used to train WWII bomber crews — extends about 12,000 feet.

Fossett, 60, set his ballooning record in 2002, taking off and landing in Australia. He also has swum the English Channel, taken part in the Iditarod sled dog race and driven in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race.

The GlobalFlyer's trip broke several other aviation records, including the longest flight by a jet without refueling. The record was more than 12,000 miles, set by a B-52 bomber in 1962.

Aviation pioneer Wiley Post made the first solo around-the-world trip in 1933, taking more than seven days and stopping numerous times. The first nonstop global flight without refueling was made in a propeller-driven aircraft in 1986 by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, brother of GlobalFlyer designer Burt Rutan.

On the Net:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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