More than a century after the dawn of powered flight, another great aviation record was established yesterday as millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett set his jet-powered aircraft down on a Kansas runway to become the first person to fly alone around the world without stopping or refueling.
Pulling himself out of the GlobalFlyer's cockpit at the same Salina airport where his 23,000-mile flight began 67 hours earlier, the 60-year-old Fossett hugged his wife, Peggy, and accepted congratulations from Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic Airlines founder who bankrolled the flight.
"That was something I wanted to do for a long time, a major ambition," Fossett said.
With his success, some were saying yesterday that the last, great record in aviation had been set. What could possibly be left to accomplish in a field now more than a century old?
But historians and Fossett's kindred adventurers say that in aviation - as in space travel, mountaineering and exploration of the ocean, caves and Earth's remaining wild places - there will always be more challenges to entice the bold and the well-financed. The possibilities are limited only by the human spirit of adventure.
Aviators know how to fly 23,000 miles on one tank of fuel now, said Peter Miller, senior editor for expeditions at the National Geographic Society, after Fossett's landing. "But that's not the main thing to celebrate about this. I think the thing to celebrate is really the spirit behind it: `This looks really hard to do; let's try it.'"
One record-breaking accomplishment always inspires another, said Robert van den Linden, curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. In 1986, when two people aboard Burt Rutan's Voyager aircraft became the first to circle the world without refueling, "They said that was the last great record that remained unbroken.
"And Mr. Fossett found a way to do it solo."
Fossett took off from Salina Monday evening and headed east, across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. When worries about the accuracy of his fuel sensors arose, his team extended his flight in segments, measuring the tailwinds and giving him opportunities to land in Hawaii or California if he did run short of fuel.
But he pressed on yesterday, across Los Angeles and over the Rocky Mountains at 40,000 feet until, like Dorothy, he found himself back in Kansas again.
"Believe me, it's great to be back on the ground. It's one of the hardest things I've ever done," Fossett said.
He adds this aviation "first" to one he claimed in 2002: flying solo around the globe in a balloon. He has also set a speed record for a solo sail around the world.
His flight this week was fueled by a dozen milkshakes, water and 18,100 pounds of jet fuel, and dogged by headaches, lack of sleep and puzzling fuel-gauge readings that led his team to fear he had somehow lost 2,600 pounds of gas along the way.
"My hat's off to him," van den Linden said. "To be headed out over the Pacific when you're not sure about your fuel load? It took a great deal of courage to do that."
Courage, rather than technology, might be the essence of the thing for those who pursue new records and cross old boundaries.
Japanese adventurer Hyoichi Kohno put it this way before his 2001 attempt to hike and kayak from the North Pole to Japan ended in his death under Arctic ice: "Adventure does not mean throwing one's life away. It is the courage to take a step forward from the position one is in."
The first steps forward in aviation were taken over the course of a couple of centuries. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers floated 6,000 feet into the air over Paris in a 100-foot balloon. One hundred-twenty years later, after generations of experimentation by others, the Wright brothers made the first powered and controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Twenty-four years after that, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Lindy followed on the heels of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919, in a World War I Vickers Vimy bomber.
"If you look at the history of aviation, this is how it was advanced," Miller said. Fossett's flight was "a real achievement, but it happens in little chunks like this."
The permutations are endless. Last September, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed to the edge of space aboard the privately funded SpaceShipOne. When pilot Brian Binnie took the ship up less than a week later, the team won the $10 million X-Prize, established to spur development of space tourism.
SpaceShipOne and Fossett's GlobalFlyer were both designed by Burt Rutan, as was the Voyager airplane that made the first unrefueled circumnavigation of Earth.
Other recent attempts at aviation records have been launched with just as much spirit, but less luck and little publicity.