GlobalFlyer Ready For Flight Tests

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Last Thursday in California's Mojave desert, the latest creation of Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites team rolled out for its debut. Described by one reporter on the scene as "looking like the product of an unnatural union between a glider and a Zeppelin," the single-jet-powered, pressurized GlobalFlyer is designed to fly around the world nonstop, without refueling, in about three days, carrying a solo pilot. The craft makes it possible for American billionaire Steve Fossett, with support from British billionaire Richard Branson, to pursue yet another aviation record. Test flights will begin soon, with the record attempt expected in either April or November of this year. Branson is acting as reserve pilot, but made it clear that since part of the pilot's job is to stay awake for 80 hours straight, he really hopes Fossett takes the flight. "I will be giving Steve lots of vitamin pills to make sure he stays well," he said last week. The aircraft measures 114 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and is powered by a single Williams FJ44-3 ATW jet engine fed by 17 fuel tanks. Top speed will be close to 300 mph. The aircraft is expected to travel at around 45,000 feet but can climb as high as 52,000 feet. At the start of the flight, the 4,000-pound airplane will carry 18,000 pounds of fuel. "In Voyager, 73 percent of our takeoff weight was fuel," Rutan said in a news release. "For this project we needed to get that up to 82 percent, because that's the only way we can get this plane all the way round the planet. Now that may only sound like 9 percent when you read this, but that is actually orders of magnitude more difficult. It was a big deal." Rutan's Voyager aircraft, which now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, was the first to fly nonstop around the world without refueling, back in 1986. That trip required nine days and two pilots.