U.S. tycoon and adventurer Steve Fossett, already famous for sailboating and solo ballooning records, claims to have soared to new heights in an engineless glider over the Argentine Andes.
The 62-year-old Chicago investment mogul said he and Norwegian co-pilot Einar Enevoldson, 74, rode powerful rising air currents above the remote Patagonia region on Tuesday, reaching a record 50,699 feet.
"We have made attempts in New Zealand, the United States and Argentina over a period of five years, so this is a hard-won success," Fossett said in the statement released by his publicist.
He said he was jubilant after breaking the record of 49,009 feet, set in 1986 by American Robert Harris in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
Fossett's claim, which could not immediately be independently verified, will now be subject to scrutiny by the world aviation authority, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
He said he and Enevoldson, a former NASA test pilot, rode in a lightweight, unpressurized glider named "Perlan" — Norwegian for "pearl" — which was released from a tow plane at 13,000 feet. The pilots then rose on currents above the Andes backbone near the border with Chile.
The two said they used El Calafate, a popular launch point near southern Argentina's glaciers, some 1,300 miles south of the capital of Buenos Aires.
Both wore pressurized suits for the more than four-hour climb to extreme altitudes — where they relied on foot heaters to fight the chill in their cramped cockpit as outside temperatures dropped to 71 degrees below zero.
They also said they collected meteorological data for a NASA and U.S. Navy study of the polar vortex, a pattern of high-speed winds circling Antarctica in the stratosphere.
Fossett said that during the flight they spotted a commercial airliner cruising below the glider at 35,000 feet.
"I couldn't understand how the Chilean controller described us in Spanish to the airline pilot," he said in the statement. "But I understood the answer by the pilot: 'Wow.'"
Fossett and Enevoldson attempted to best Harris' mark — which stood for more than 20 years — during three winter seasons in New Zealand from 2002 to 2004. But they said the atmospheric wave pattern there was not strong enough to boost their glider high enough to match Harris' feat then.
Fossett told The Associated Press in 2004 that he was moving his effort to Argentina.
In 2002, Fossett became the first to fly a hot air balloon solo around the world, landing in the Australian outback on July 4. He nearly lost his life twice in six attempts at the feat.