Steve Fossett's experimental airplane lost more than 4 percent of its fuel during takeoff, which could jeopardize his attempt to break the long distance flight record, his mission team said Thursday.
As of early Thursday, his glider-like plane still had 10,500 pounds of fuel left. Mission managers hadn't pinpointed the cause of the fuel leak but believed a buildup of pressure in the fuel tanks may be partly responsible.
Fuel leaks plagued Fossett's successful venture last year to become the first person to fly solo, nonstop around the world without refueling, and also delayed his take off this week. He lost 750 pounds of fuel in the takeoff, his crew said.
"The fuel loss will diminish the total number of miles it is able to travel, and owing to the high temperatures at the start, Steve was not able to climb to altitude as fast as he needed to," mission control director Kevin Stass said in a statement released by Fossett's flight team.
Despite some hair-raising moments, Fossett soared out over the Atlantic from a Kennedy Space Center runway Wednesday on a quest to break the nearly 25,000-mile record for the world's longest aircraft flight.
The plane lifted off about 1,500 feet farther down the runway than it should have, and it hit two birds. The temperature in the cockpit soared to 130 degrees, causing instruments to temporarily stop working before it cooled off.
"Takeoff was a bit scary, to say the least," Fossett, 61, said hours later in a statement issued by his flight team. "I had to use most of the runway to get off the ground. This was particularly hairy, as I couldn't have aborted even if I had wanted to."
The birds apparently hit the leading edge of a wing and the nose of one of the 13 fuel tanks, but those spots are well reinforced, said Jon Karkow, flight engineer.
Fossett's plane, the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, is made of lightweight carbon fiber and has a super fuel-efficient turbofan jet engine with a very high thrust-to-weight ratio.
His goal is a nearly 27,000-mile trip, once around the world and then across the Atlantic again, with a landing Saturday outside London. The 80-hour voyage would break the airplane distance record of 24,987 miles set in 1986 by the lightweight Voyager aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, as well as the balloon record of 25,361 miles set by the Breitling Orbiter 3 in 1999.
Fossett in 2002 became the first person to fly solo around the globe in a balloon, and last March he became the first person to circle the Earth solo in a plane without stopping or refueling. Both that flight, which lasted 67 hours, and the latest flight were in the same plane and financed by Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson.
The aircraft's spindly wings extend 114 feet tip to tip. Drag parachutes are used to help it descend from its average cruising altitude of about nine miles or slow it down from a top speed of 285 mph. Before takeoff, the plane had 18,000 pounds of fuel.
Fossett will take power naps during the trip, and the plane is equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon, just in case.
Fossett went ahead with trip despite jetstreams that raised fears he might not make it to his destination in Kent, England.
"Mr. Fossett decided it was worth trying," Karkow said. "He'd rather be flying than sitting on the ground waiting for a good day."
On the Net:
Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer at http://www.virginatlanticglobalflyer.com
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