Born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1944, Steve Fossett was a precocious child. At 3 years old he taught himself how to drive a car, or rather, how to stall it repeatedly down the street using the starter button.
He joined the Boy Scouts at age 11 and worked his way up the ranks to Eagle Scout. Keying off the scouting advancement scheme, diversity, preparedness and endurance, became fundamental elements of Steve Fossett’s life of adventure.
Although a pilot since his college years, Fossett’s first significant aviation endeavor was distance ballooning. He earned his balloon license in 1993 and made his first major flight in August 1994 when he and copilot Tim Cole flew across the Atlantic from Canada to Germany. His greatest goal was to fly around the world, but no manned balloon had ever flown more than 6 days or 5000 miles.
In 1995, Fossett made the first solo balloon flight across the Pacific, starting in Seoul, Korea and landing in Saskatchewan, Canada, setting an absolute world distance record of almost 5,500 miles.
Between 1996 and 2001, Fossett made five solo round-the-world attempts. Finally, in June 2002, Fossett began his sixth attempt from Northam, Australia, flying the Bud Light Spirit of Freedom. Fourteen days and nineteen hours later he landed in Queensland, Australia, successfully completing the first round the world solo balloon flight. A flight that took a decade to achieve!
Fossett became one of 17 Zeppelin captains in the world. In October 2004 he set an absolute world speed record for airships of 71.5 miles per hour.
After flying a Falcon 10 for years, he moved up to a Cessna Citation X, in which he set transcontinental and round-the-world non-supersonic records.
Although Fossett had his mind on the “last great aviation record” Burt Rutan, the famed aircraft designer had not one, but two proposals – the first private spaceship and the solo around-the-world airplane. Fossett was more interested in the solo airplane – the GlobalFlyer.
After just 100 hours of test flights, Fossett took off from Salina, Kansas on February 28, 2005. Half way into the flight he discovered one-sixth of the fuel was missing. Fossett strategically made decisions at each point: whether he could make it to the next possible landing sites.
Riding one of the best jet stream days of the year, he continued on to Salina, landing safely on March 3. Fossett had achieved the first solo non-stop round-the-world speed record, making the journey in 67 hours, one minute and ten seconds.
Although the purpose of the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer was to make the first solo around-the-world nonstop flight, Fossett contemplated a flight to establish an absolute non-stop distance record.
On the distance flight, Fossett would have to make a second Atlantic crossing at the end of his flight. Fossett left NASA Kennedy Space Center on February 8, 2006, acutely aware that the “ultimate flight” would be stretching the limits of the aircraft. Spectators held their breath as the heavily loaded GlobalFlyer took off using almost 13,000 feet of the 15,000-foot Space Shuttle runway.
On February 11, crossing Shannon, Ireland, Fossett broke the airplane nonstop global flight distance record of 24,986 miles set by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager aboard Voyager in 1986.
Fossett set a new world glider altitude record in Argentina, reaching a height of 50,727 feet in August 2006.
In total Steve Fossett held 116 world records or world firsts as well as official world records in five sports (sailboats, balloons, airplanes, gliders, and airships) before his death in 2007. His love of flight led him to balloons. On the Spirit of Freedom, Steve Fossett became the first (and only) person to complete a solo balloon flight around the world in 2002. He has circumnavigated the earth ballooning, sailing and flying. Long fascinated by endurance sports, he swam the English Channel, ran Alaska’s famed Iditarod Dogsled Race, drove the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race and finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
In his autobiography, “Chasing the Wind” (Virgin Books), Fossett talked directly about his extraordinary life in business and sport, his challenges and failures along the way, and his goals and motivations.
For his determination and commitment to blazing new trails – especially in the air – Steve Fossett earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame with induction ceremonies on July 21, 2007. During Fossett’s acceptance speech he told a crowd gathered at the Dayton, Ohio Convention Center “I am hoping you didn’t give me this award because you think my career is complete, because I am not done.”
Fossett was declared legally dead by an Illinois judge in February 2008, five months after his small plane vanished Sept. 3, 2007 while he was flying over the Nevada desert. He was 63.
“I pursue world records for the sense of personal achievement. I never tire of the satisfaction of reaching another goal. I will always find fascinating new endeavors.”