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Looking to Log a Flight Record

Times Staff Writer

With laser-light glitz typically reserved for rock concerts, maverick British billionaire Richard Branson unveiled his latest big venture here Thursday: a Star Trek-like aircraft that will attempt to fly nonstop around the world in 80 hours.

The GlobalFlyer, resembling a flying catamaran and powered by a single jet engine, will attempt to break what Branson called the “last great aviation record left here on Earth,” as it circumnavigates the globe with a single pilot and a single load of fuel.

But Branson, who founded upstart Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. and has attempted to fly around the world in a balloon because of his love of “fantastic adventures,” plans to leave flying the plane to someone else.

Steve Fossett, his partner in several of the record-setting attempts, will pilot the experimental aircraft. Branson, who is spending $2 million on the project, has been designated as the reserve pilot.

“Flying solo nonstop around the world has been a dream of Steve’s for some time, and Virgin Atlantic is proud and delighted to help turn this ambition into reality,” said Branson, chairman of Virgin Group Ltd.

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To accomplish the feat, Branson turned to famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who from his base at the desert airport here has developed many pioneering airplanes. Among them is Voyager, the first plane to circumnavigate the globe nonstop and without refueling, in 1986.

The Voyager, however, was powered by two propeller engines and was flown by two pilots taking turns, including Rutan’s brother Dick Rutan. It took nine days for Voyager to go around the world, but GlobalFlyer will attempt to do so in little over three.

Although similar in shape to Voyager, GlobalFlyer is designed to hold nearly three times more fuel and fly three times faster. Loaded with 18,000 pounds of fuel -- about 82% of the aircraft’s weight -- GlobalFlyer will take off very slowly from a yet-to-be-determined airport in the Midwest in April or October, depending on how test flights go.

The new plane is made entirely of composite materials and would weigh barely 4,000 pounds upon landing if the attempt is successful. To set the aviation record, it will have to fly at least 22,858 miles, the minimum required for a circumnavigation attempt.

In essence, the plane will take off with the fuel capacity of a large business jet and land like a lightweight sailplane, a technological feat that has no equals, said Chuck Coleman, the aircraft’s project engineer.

“I believe this is the most beautiful airplane in the world,” Burt Rutan said.

After reaching its cruising altitude of 45,000 feet, which will take 14 hours, the plane will get some help from the fast-moving jet stream and save fuel.

The precise route hasn’t been determined, but the plane will follow a path that will take it across the Atlantic, over Britain and across the Mediterranean, Pakistan, India, China and Japan before crossing the Pacific.

The idea came about five years ago during a chat among aviation enthusiasts including Fossett and Dick Rutan while they were staying at hotel magnet Barron Hilton’s sprawling ranch near Reno.

“Fossett asked if there were any new adventures to take, and I told him about the aircraft that my brother was thinking about developing,” Dick Rutan said. After further talks with Branson, the project began in earnest 14 months ago.

In typical Branson fashion, the aircraft was unveiled in front of about 100 journalists, many of them flown in from Britain for the two-hour affair that included laser lights, machine-made smoke and heart-thumping techno music. In Britain, Branson is considered an icon of sorts on par with soccer great David Beckham.

Always conscious of grabbing media attention, Branson and Fossett wore shiny silver-white jumpsuits akin to what astronauts wear, and were flanked by two tall Virgin Atlantic flight attendants dressed in red.

There is a business reason for pumping up the aircraft, Branson said.

For Virgin Atlantic, the “challenge is always to be ahead of the competition, to be innovative and fun. The GlobalFlyer fits with the image of what Virgin stands for,” Branson said, adding that the money he is spending on the aircraft will be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising.”

Aviation veterans, many of whom have seen the most advanced aircraft unveiled here and at neighboring Edwards Air Force Base, said they had never seen anything like it.

“We’ve had amazing rollouts, but they pale in comparison,” Dick Rutan said.


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