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Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer
GlobalFlyer at the Mojave Spaceport in April 2004
Role Long-range aircraft for record attempt
Manufacturer Scaled Composites
Designed by Burt Rutan
First flight 2005
Retired March 17, 2006
Primary user Steve Fossett
Number built 1
Registration N277SF
Preserved at National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
GlobalFlyer at the Kennedy Space Center
The initial "napkin" sketch of the aircraft by Burt Rutan

The Scaled Composites Model 311 Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer (registered N277SF) is an aircraft designed by Burt Rutan in which Steve Fossett flew a solo nonstop airplane flight around the world in a time of 67 hours 1 minute from February 28, 2005 until March 3, 2005. The flight speed of 590.7 km/h (342.2 mph) broke the Absolute World Record for the fastest nonstop unrefueled circumnavigation set by the previous Rutan-designed Voyager aircraft at 9 days 3 minutes and an average speed of 186.11 km/h (115.65 mph).

The aircraft was owned by the pilot Steve Fossett, sponsored by Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic, and built by Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites. The companies had previously announced a combined effort for Virgin Galactic.

Between February 8, 2006 – February 11, 2006, Fossett flew the GlobalFlyer for the longest aircraft flight distance in history: 25,766 miles (41,467 km).



The GlobalFlyer is the first jet aircraft designed for an uninterrupted circumnavigation of the globe. Unusual for modern aircraft, the GlobalFlyer has just a single jet engine.

Physically, the GlobalFlyer aircraft somewhat resembles an enlarged, slender WWII airplane, the P-38, with twin tail booms mounted outboard of a smaller, central nacelle. The pressurized cockpit is mounted on the leading edge of the center pod and provides seven feet of space in which the pilot sits. Unlike the P-38, or similar twin-tail designs, the solitary turbofan engine is mounted atop the manned central fuselage, several feet behind the cockpit. The outboard tail booms instead contain fuel, and end in control surfaces which are not cross-connected.

The aircraft is constructed of carbon fiber reinforced epoxy, the main structural member being a slender single spar 114 foot (35 m) wing. The wings are made of sturdy composite materials with the skin of the aircraft being a graphite/epoxy and Aramid honeycomb. The use of lightweight materials permits the fuel (in thirteen tanks) to comprise 83% of the take-off weight.

The aircraft had an estimated lift to drag ratio (L/D) of 37[1]. The aerodynamic drag is so low that, even with the engine idling, the aircraft can only descend at a maximum of 700 feet/200 meters per minute. Drogue chutes were used to slow the GlobalFlyer to landing speeds.

The Voyager aircraft suffered from design flaws that made it warp in shape very easily, so the GlobalFlyer is designed to have greater stiffness. A single jet engine design was chosen for the GlobalFlyer for increased reliability over propeller engines and faster circumnavigation for the solo pilot.

The GlobalFlyer is designed to operate at high altitudes, where the air is colder. Despite this, fuel heaters were not included in the design. As a consequence of this, there was some concern that, if the aircraft was to use standard jet fuel, the fuel might freeze. Therefore, the GlobalFlyer's engine, a Williams International FJ44-3 ATW turbofan, which would normally take Jet-A fuel, was re-calibrated to burn JP-4 fuel, which has a substantially lower freezing point.

First solo nonstop circumnavigation

Following solo test flights at Mojave, California by Chief Engineer Jon Karkow and pilot Steve Fossett, Fossett moved the GlobalFlyer to Salina, Kansas in January, 2005 where a recently resurfaced runway of 12,300 feet (3750 m) would accommodate the anticipated long takeoff roll. The round the world attempt was delayed until 28 February 2005 to obtain a weather forecast with low turbulence for the fragile GlobalFlyer and good tailwinds.

Mission Control was at the adjacent Salina campus of Kansas State University.

A tailwind was essential to making the 36,787.559 km that it needed to fly to meet the FAI's definition of circumnavigation, the length of the Tropic of Cancer. The GlobalFlyer was designed to complete the circumnavigation with minimal reserves of fuel. As it turned out, a design flaw in the fuel venting system resulted in the loss of about 1,200 kg (2,600 lb) of fuel early in the flight. This forced Steve Fossett and Mission Control to decide whether to abort the flight as it reached the Pacific Ocean near Japan. Steve Fossett chose to delay the final decision until he reached Hawaii. By that time, favorable winds encouraged the mission team to go ahead and attempt to complete the circumnavigation.

Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer landed at Salina at 19:50 UTC (13:50 CST) on 3 March 2005, having completed its circumnavigation in 2 days 19 hours 1 minute 46 seconds. The distance flown was determined to be 36,912 km, only 125 km above the minimum distance required.

Longest distance aircraft flight

GlobalFlyer arriving at KSC

Steve Fossett planned a second circumnavigation in the GlobalFlyer, this time taking off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, flying eastbound around the world then crossing the Atlantic a second time and then landing at Kent International Airport in Kent, England.

The objective was to break the Absolute Distance Without Landing Record for airplanes and to exceed the longest distance by any kind of aircraft which was achieved by the Round the World Balloon flight of Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in 1999.

On Wednesday, February 8, 2006, at 12:22 (UTC), GlobalFlyer took off and flew eastbound from Kennedy Space Center, and landed after a flight duration of 76 hours 45 minutes with an official distance of 25,766 miles (41,467 km).

This distance set a new record for the longest ever aircraft flight in history, breaking the old records of 24,987 miles (40,212 km) in an airplane and 25,360 miles (40,814 km) in a balloon. The landing was made at Bournemouth Airport, England, Fossett having declared an emergency and diverting because of a generator failure at 40,000 feet (12,000 m). Generator failure meant that he had about 25 minutes until his batteries were exhausted, when he would have lost all electrical power. To add to the drama, there was ice on the inside of the canopy obstructing Fossett's view, making his landing virtually blind; one tire was flat from the takeoff roll and the remaining main tire burst on touchdown due to frozen brakes; and the fuel remaining was indicated to be only 200 lb (91 kg).

Aside from that there was some relatively minor damage such as a broken aileron hinge and a jammed intake valve, but otherwise the aircraft survived intact.

Closed circuit distance flight and retirement

Steve Fossett flew the GlobalFlyer to one more major aviation record: the Absolute Distance Over a Closed Circuit. A Closed Circuit record must take off and land at the same place and the distance is measured over verifiable waypoints. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager had already flown the Voyager Around the World in 1986, so a longer closed circuit course was needed to break their record. Fossett started in Salina, Kansas on March 14, 2006 and flew eastbound around the world. Upon leaving Japan he flew south and then tracked along the Equator in order to maximize the distance while crossing the Pacific Ocean. He landed back in Salina, Kansas on March 17, 2006 after traversing a total of 25,294 miles (40,707 km) to set a new Absolute Distance Over a Closed Circuit Record.

With this final record flight before retirement, the GlobalFlyer had set 3 of the 7 absolute world records of airplanes as ratified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The GlobalFlyer is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


General characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 44 ft 1 in (13.44 m)
  • Wingspan: 114 ft 0 in (34.75 m)
  • Height: 13 ft 3 in (4.05 m)
  • Wing area: 400 ft² (37.16 m²)
  • Empty weight: 3700 lb (1678 kg)
  • Gross weight: 22100 lb (10024 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Williams FJ44-2 turbofan, 2300 lbf (11.01 kN)


  • Maximum speed: 196 mph (315 km/h)
  • Range: 19,000 miles (35,188 km)
  • Service ceiling: 51,000 ft (15,444 m)
  • Maximum glide ratio: 37

See also

  • Concorde holds the fastest refuelled circumnavigation


  1. ^ David Noland, "Steve Fossett and Burt Rutan's Ultimate Solo: Behind the Scenes," Popular Mechanics, Feb. 2005 (web version)

External links

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