MANSTON, England – Adventurer Steve Fossett completed the longest nonstop flight in aviation history with an emergency landing Saturday, flying 26,389 miles in about 76 hours but stopping early because of mechanical problems.
Ground control said Fossett, 61, broke the airplane distance record of 24,987 miles while his lightweight experimental plane was flying over Shannon, Ireland.
Generator problems then forced him to land the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer at Bournemouth International Airport in southern England instead of at a military air strip in nearby Kent.
"I was really lucky to make it here today, there was a lot going on," Fossett told reporters after he landed. "The tension of the final part really took it out of me, but I will be fine in the morning."
The millionaire adventurer completed his nonstop journey around the globe — and then some — over 3 1/2 days despite losing about 750 pounds of fuel during his takeoff Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida because of a leak.
Fossett recounted the journey after he arrived later on Saturday at his scheduled finishing point — Kent International Airport — on a private jet alongside Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Atlantic, which sponsored Fossett's record bid. He was greeted there by his wife, Peggy, and rapturous applause from the assembled crowd.
Stepping onto the tarmac in his silver flight suit, Fossett said he was relieved after being forced to make the emergency landing.
He said he realized he was in trouble when he began his descent for Kent and a light came on indicating the plane's generator had failed, prompting him to put emergency procedures in place.
The tense climax was one of several episodes that nearly doomed his voyage.
During takeoff Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center, his plane leaked fuel and he nearly ran out of runway.
"I had to pull up with all my might" to get the plane in the air before the end of the airstrip.
Severe turbulence over India "almost broke the plane apart," he said, forcing him to strap on a parachute for fear of having to eject.
Instead, his flight team altered his projected route. They had him cross Florida, where he began his journey Wednesday, and take a southerly path on the flight's last leg to take advantage of better winds.
The plane's ventilation system also malfunctioned midway through the trip, causing temperatures in the 7-foot cockpit to rise to as much as 130 degrees. Fossett was forced to drink a large part of his water supply earlier than planned because of the heat, his flight team said.
Early Saturday, Fossett decided to try to finish the trip after reaching the middle of the Atlantic.
"He burst two tires on landing and the poor Global Flyer had to be dragged off the runway," said Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic.
His voyage broke 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 Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard in 1999.
After the news conference, Fossett was presented with the Guinness World Record for the longest flight in history.
Fossett already holds the record for flying solo around the globe in a balloon and for being the first person to circle the globe solo in a plane without stopping or refueling. That flight last year lasted 67 hours and was hampered by a fuel leak.
While in the air, Fossett took power naps no longer than 10 minutes each and drank a steady diet of milkshakes. His plane was equipped with a parachute pack holding a one-man raft and a satellite rescue beacon.
Branson— who was beaming with pride throughout the conference— said Fossett's record was a superhuman effort.
"He's just flown further than man, or woman, has ever flown," said Branson. "He has had pretty much no sleep since he set off from Kennedy a few days ago, and he has been through an incredible amount."