Although Rutan christened it the Capricorn, this sleek high flyer soon made a name for itself as the Virgin GlobalFlyer...

Customer:  Virgin Atlantic

Type:  non-refueled, round-the-world range vehicle

Program:  Virgin GlobalFlyer (proprietary)

Powerplant: 1 x Williams FJ44

First flight: 5 March 2004

Scaled's Model 311 aircraft is a single engine turbofan aircraft specifically designed for non-stop global circumnavigation by a solo pilot with no passengers. The Voyager aircraft which took Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager around the world non-stop could well be considered 311's 'big sister', but evolution and invention on the part of Burt himself and Jon Karkow has certainly played its part in making this aircraft unique.

Aerodynamics are key to this aircraft, and its configuration is optimised for range and fuel efficiency. The aircraft's aerodynamics have been designed using extremely sophisticated computing technology that uses computational fluid dynamics to predict how the aircraft's surfaces will behave in flight. The aircraft is so aerodynamically perfect, that the only practical way to descend is using drag parachutes, like the ones in the picture above. As the aircraft is only required to land once, these won't be detachable and will take time to reset.

The aircraft is a trimaran-like construction with two huge external 'booms' which hold the landing gear, and 5,454 pounds of fuel on either side of the pilot's cockpit in the centre on top of which is the single Williams turbofan jet engine. The construction materials used for the structure of this aircraft are all graphite/epoxy. The stiffest carbon fibers are used in the construction of the wings, and the skin is a sandwich of graphite/epoxy and Aramid honeycomb. The aircraft doesn't have what is known as 'deicing' or 'anti-ice' measures. This means that it will be unable to fly in 'icing' conditions. In addition, it won't cope with turbulence very well in the early part of the flight when the aircraft is heavy and structural margins low; so weather will be an important factor in choosing when and where to take off from.

The pilot sits in the main fuselage, the centre pod, just behind the nose landing gear and below the engine. He's also seated in front of the main fuel header tank which feeds the engine, in a pressurised cabin because of the altitude he flies at, which gives him a 'cabin altitude' of 10,000 feet at the 45,000 feet he is actually flying at. The cockpit itself is a mere 7 feet long. It is equipped with a reclining carbon fiber seat. However, to get a good enough view for take off and landing, the pilot needs to sit on cushions as the seat isn't high enough.

Advanced aerodynamic design accounts for the engine’s outstanding fuel economy at altitude, which makes the Williams FJ44 the ideal engine for the GlobalFlyer. In fact, it is the only engine with sufficient thrust-to-weight ratio and fuel economy to enable GlobalFlyer’s record-setting flights. Although remarkably quiet by jet engine standards, the engine is located so close to the pilot that sound deadening had to be added to the cockpit. There are thirteen fuel tanks all in all, and on take-off, this aircraft is about 83% fuel by weight. Which must be a world record surely? Getting fuel to where it's needed whilst maintaining the balance and stability of the aircraft is a feat that requires constant supervision and monitoring. The fuel itself is a special fuel that has a much lower freezing point that regular aviation fuel.

On March 5, 2004, the Virgin GlobalFlyer flew for the first time, over the Mojave Desert in California. It was piloted by Project Engineer and Test Pilot Jon Karkow. The test hop lasted one hour and thirty minutes. After liftoff, the aircraft conducted stability tests and other flight parameters. The craft's tricycle landing gear was retracted and extended and the effectiveness of the airplane's descent and landing drag chutes was evaluated. Karkow reported that the airplane had "excellent flying qualities", a Scaled Composites press released stated. All aircraft systems operated well and the aircraft returned with no maintenance squawks.

Famous pilot Steve Fossett is the assigned pilot on the GlobalFlyer (the 'SF' in the civil registration stands for him) and has successfully travelled around the world twice. On March 3, 2005, GlobalFlyer completed the long-awaited solo around the world flight, breaking the record for the "Longest Non Stop Flight" ever, and on February 2, 2006, GlobalFlyer set a long distance record of 26,389.3 miles. While Fossett was high-flying, millions were captivated by his progress and amazed by his endurance skills as he braved unfavourable and extreme conditions. The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer is a remarkable aircraft that has allowed Fossett to break two extraordinary records.

Population: 1 [N277SF] (c/n 001)

Wingspan: 114 ft
Wing area: 400 sq.ft.
Length: 44.1 ft.
Height: 13.3 ft.
Gross weight: 22,000 lbs.
Empty weight: 3,350 lbs.

Crew/passengers: 1

Main sources:

  • An introduction to the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer (site no longer online)
  • Wikipedia


R.I.P. Steve Fossett

James Stephen "Steve" Fossett (April 22, 1944 – c. September 3, 2007) was an American businessman born in Jackson, Tennessee, and a record-setting aviator, sailor, and adventurer. He made his fortune in the financial services industry, and was best known for many world records, including five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth: as a long-distance solo balloonist, as a sailor, and as a solo flight fixed-wing aircraft pilot. He was an aviator of exceptional breadth of experience, from his quest to become the first person to achieve a solo balloon flight around the world. His achievements as a jet pilot in a Cessna Citation X include records for U.S. Transcontinental, Australia Transcontinental, and Round-the-World westbound non-supersonic flights. Prior to Fossett's aviation records, no pilot had held world records in more than one class of aircraft; Fossett held them in four classes.

Fossett grew up in Garden Grove, California and graduated from Garden Grove High School. His interest in adventure began early, and as a Boy Scout, he grew up climbing the mountains of California, beginning with the San Jacinto Mountains. But as he did not have a natural gift for athletics or team sports, he prefered to focus on activities that required persistence and endurance.

In college at Stanford University, Fossett was already known as an adventurer; while at Stanford, he was a student body officer and served as the president of a few clubs. In 1966, Fossett graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics but his passion didn't leave him and he spent the following summer in Europe climbing mountains and swimming the Dardanelles.

In 1968, Fossett received an MBA from the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was later a longtime member of the Board of Trustees. His first job out of business school was with IBM; he then served as a consultant for Deloitte and Touche, and later accepted a job with Marshall Field's. After 15 years of working for other companies, Fossett founded his own firms, Marathon Securities and Lakota Trading, from which he made millions renting exchange memberships. Fossett continued to thrive over the years and would later use those revenues to finance his adventures.

Fossett did not participate in any of the "interesting things" he had done in college during his time in exchange-related activities so he began to take six weeks a year off to spend time on sports and eventually moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado, in 1990, where for a time he ran his business from a distance. He later sold most of his business interests, although he maintained an office in Chicago until 2006. Fossett became well known in the United Kingdom for his friendship with billionaire Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group sponsored some of Fossett's adventures.

In 2005, Fossett made the first solo, nonstop, unrefueled circumnavigation of the world in an airplane, in 67 hours in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, a single-engine jet aircraft. In 2006, he again circumnavigated the globe nonstop and unrefueled in 76 hours, 45 minutes in the GlobalFlyer, setting the record for the longest flight by any aircraft in history with a distance of 25,766 statute miles (41,467 km). He set 91 aviation world records ratified by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, of which 36 stand, plus 23 sailing world records ratified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council. On August 29, 2006 he set the world altitude record for gliders over El Calafate, Argentina at 50,722 feet (15,460 m). Management and sponsorship of the majority of his projects was handled by UK based sports marketing agency Project 100 Communications Ltd for whom Fossett had first driven at Le Mans in 1992.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club, Fossett set 116 records in five different sports, 60 of which still stood when he disappeared. On September 3, 2007, Fossett was reported missing after the plane he was flying over the Nevada desert failed to return. Despite a month of searches by the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and others, Fossett could not be found, and the search by CAP was called off on October 2, 2007. Privately funded and privately directed search efforts continued, but after a request from Fossett's wife, he was declared legally dead on February 15, 2008.

On September 29, 2008, a hiker found Fossett's identification cards in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and the crash site was discovered a few days later (on 1 October 2008) 65 miles (100 km) due south from Flying-M Ranch where he took off, and 5.3 miles (8.5 km) due west (282 degrees) of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area's base operations, although his remains were not initially found. On November 3, 2008, tests conducted on two bones recovered about 750 feet (230 m) from the site of the crash produced a match to Fossett's DNA.