CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Steve Fossett's bony-looking experimental airplane lifted off about 1,500 feet farther down the runway than it should have. Then it hit two birds. The temperature in the cockpit soared to 130 degrees, causing instruments to temporarily stop working before it cooled off.
Despite some hair-raising moments, Fossett soared out over the Atlantic Wednesday on a quest to break the 25,000-mile record for the world's longest aircraft flight.
Fossett began the 3½-day nonstop trip by squeezing into the tiny cockpit, kissing his wife, Peggy, goodbye and barreling down a runway normally used for space shuttle landings at the Kennedy Space Center.
[Fossett's Web site lets users track his progress.]
"Takeoff was a bit scary, to say the least," Fossett, 61, said hours later in a statement issued by his flight team. "I had to use most of the runway to get off the ground. This was particularly hairy, as I couldn't have aborted even if I had wanted to."
The white-knuckle takeoff was free of technical problems such as the major fuel leaks that had plagued Fossett's nonstop solo flight around the globe last year and prevented him from taking off on Tuesday.
The birds apparently hit the leading edge of a wing and the nose of one of the fuel tanks, but those spots are well reinforced, said Jon Karkow, flight engineer.
Fossett's goal is a nearly 27,000-mile trip, once around the world and then across the Atlantic again, with a landing Saturday outside London.
The 80-hour voyage would break the airplane distance record of 24,987 miles set in 1986 by the lightweight Voyager aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, as well as the balloon record of 25,361 miles set by the Breitling Orbiter 3 in 1999.
Fossett in 2002 became the first person to fly solo around the globe in a balloon, and last March he became the first person to circle the Earth solo in a plane without stopping or refueling. That flight, also made in the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, lasted 67 hours.
Both that venture and the latest flight were financed by Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson.
The aircraft has 13 fuel tanks under its spindly wings, which extend 114 feet tip to tip. Drag parachutes are used to help it descend from its average cruising altitude of about nine miles or slow it down from a top speed of 285 mph. At takeoff, the plane had 18,000 pounds of fuel.
Fossett will take power naps no longer than five minutes each and drink nutrition shakes while in the air. His plane is equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon, just in case.
Fossett went ahead with trip despite jetstreams that raised fears he might not make it to his destination in Kent, England.
"Mr. Fossett decided it was worth trying," Karkow said. "He'd rather be flying than sitting on the ground waiting for a good day."