Up, Up And Away

Steve Fossett was home last week in Beaver Creek, Colo.--not where you usually find him--keeping an eye on the wind. Before that, he was in Omarama, New Zealand, waiting for the right weather conditions to fly his specially outfitted high-altitude glider into the stratosphere, which would set a new height record for unpowered flight. Earlier in the month he was at a dusty desert airfield in Mojave, Calif., testing his speed-and-distance glider, in which he hopes to set several new records for speed and distance in November in Argentina. Before then, though, he is planning an attempt to set a new 24-hour distance sailing record in his 125-foot catamaran, considered by some the fastest sailboat in the world. That would be in the North Atlantic, sailing northeast from Cape Hatteras in the middle of the Gulf Stream. At any moment, the world's weather is generating unimaginably more power than all its power plants combined--and Steve Fossett wants just a few kilowatts of it to blow him somewhere, faster or higher or farther than anyone else has ever gone.

The wind has been good to Fossett. In just under 15 days, it blew him across Australia, South America and the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans last year, when he became the first person to fly alone round the world in a balloon, his signature achievement. He holds, among many others, records for the fastest speed in a manned balloon (200.24 miles per hour), for the greatest distance flown in a balloon over 24 hours (3,186.80 statute miles), for eastbound transatlantic sailing (New York to England in four days, 17i hours), for westbound transatlantic sailing (the "Columbus route," Cadiz to San Salvador, in nine days, 13i hours) and for covering 1,000 kilometers in a glider (6 hours, 17 minutes, 54 seconds, corresponding roughly to a speed of 100 miles per hour). His life is a tribute to mankind's enduring dream of escaping the friction-bound Earth into effortless flight--and to the fabulously creative, preposterously expensive technology that makes it possible.

In fact, Fossett--an unassuming 59-year-old businessman of no particular athletic ability (he swam the English Channel in 1985, but in the slowest time of the year)--is a model for the 21st-century adventurer, one part Captain Cook to three parts Bill Gates. Fossett brings to adventuring the same skills he used to make a substantial fortune as head of a Chicago-based options-trading firm. He knows how to assemble and run a large organization: the solo balloon flight was backed by a team of more than a dozen, including meteorologists, communications specialists, air-traffic monitors and an "inflation director." He has endurance and concentration: during the balloon trip he averaged four hours of sleep out of 24, mostly in 45-minute naps. And above all, he is an expert at assessing and managing the phenomenon that underlies options trading and high-altitude gliding alike: risk. The worst thing you can call Fossett is a thrill seeker, putting him on a par with bungee jumpers and stunt pilots. Actually, he was a stunt pilot, but he sold his stunt plane, along with his Ducati motorcycle; neither sport seemed worth the likelihood that sooner or later he'd wind up in traction, or worse. "I've chosen these sports--sailboat racing, gliding, ballooning--and the fact that they're dangerous is just a disadvantage that I have to live with," he says mildly. "I don't enjoy the risks. I spend a lot of time trying to reduce the risks."

And that's how he happens to find himself on the taxiway of a remote airfield in the Mojave Desert in early September, zipped into a flame-resistant flight suit --("It's not actually required, but I figure, why not?" he says with the nonchalance of someone who wore a suit to work for 20-odd Chicago summers), fiddling with the controls of his ASH-25M glider. His copilot, Einar Enevoldson, a retired Air Force and NASA pilot, is in a T shirt. Fossett will be taking the ASH to Argentina in November to catch the "mountain wave" east of the Andes. Most sport gliders stay aloft by searching for thermal updrafts caused by uneven heating of the ground, which they do by flying around in circles a lot--not a very efficient way to cover distance, even with the ASH's 60-to-1 glide ratio. But when a broad wind front crosses a high mountain range, it creates a unique pattern on the downwind side, a sine-wave undulation that can extend invisibly for as much as 100 miles. Catching one of these waves and staying in it, an exquisite feat of both perception and control, is the best way to fly your way into the record books.

Fossett scrunches his bulk into the fuselage of the ASH, suspended between wings whose 84-foot span is six feet longer than the space shuttle's. One of the day's goals is to test the ASH's tiny but noisy rotary engine, which powers a propeller just behind the cockpit. The engine will be used to take off and, if necessary, to motor back to the airstrip. But first he goes through a tedious routine of checking out all the control surfaces. He wiggles the stick and the left flap responds, wiggles it again and the right flap... does nothing. A control rod got itself disconnected, a frightening reminder of the fragility of the quarter-million-dollar machine to which Fossett is about to entrust his life. But Fossett never loses control of himself. "This will remind me--a positive control check is never redundant," he says calmly, as mechanics grope around in the machine's innards. He stands patiently under the relentless Mojave sun, then climbs back inside and disappears into the desert sky.

Fossett has firm ideas about which challenges interest him. Traditional sailboat racing, with its byzantine classes and handicaps, holds no appeal. "I want to be the fastest," he says simply; what's the fun of "winning" a race in which the other guy actually comes in first? The idea of flying a glider into the stratosphere, though--which he failed to do in New Zealand this summer, and will attempt again in 2004--appeals to him on every level: it's physically and intellectually demanding and technologically complex, requiring full-pressure suits and cutting-edge meteorology. And there's a chance not merely to set a new record but to obliterate the old glider altitude mark of 49,000 feet, set in 1986. Fossett's plane is designed to reach 62,000 feet, and a successor, not yet built, will be capable of soaring without power to 100,000 feet--several miles higher than a U-2 spy plane.

Of course, records are meant to be broken, and Fossett accepts the inevitability that people will someday glide, sail or balloon farther and faster. In some ways, he welcomes it, because "generally the only two times the public hears about you is when you set a record and when someone else breaks it." He's not interested in celebrity as such; he's rarely recognized on the street, and usually only by fellow enthusiasts. The solo balloon flight, after five unsuccessful tries, was covered exhaustively by television, but somehow failed to endear him to the public. The Chicago Tribune, which regards him as a semi-hometown boy (although he was born in California and has retired to Colorado) ran a number of reader letters after the feat, the common theme of which was "Thank God he did it; now we never have to hear about it again."

He does it because it's fun, he says, and for the satisfaction of setting and surpassing a difficult goal, and doing something other people only dream about. He could easily afford, if he chose, to fly into space--in fact, he has a substantial private investment in Dick Rutan's space-plane project--but, he says, being a passenger on anything, even a spaceship, holds no interest for him. "Flying in the space shuttle would be fascinating," he allows, his face brightening for a moment. "But I'd want to be the pilot."