Running out of gas: billionaire's bid for global flight record hit by fuel shortage

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The Independent Online

An attempt to set an aviation first by flying non-stop around the world was hanging in the balance last night after the futuristic aircraft was found to be dangerously low on fuel.

An attempt to set an aviation first by flying non-stop around the world was hanging in the balance last night after the futuristic aircraft was found to be dangerously low on fuel.

The American billionaire Steve Fossett, who is piloting the jet, described the unexplained loss of 2,600lbs of fuel from the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer as a "huge setback" to his bid to circumnavigate the globe without refuelling.

Fossett's progress across the Pacific towards Hawaii was helped by tailwinds of 100mph as his mileage for the trip approached 16,000. But mission controllers warned that the speed of the jet-stream was predicted to fall to just 40mph beyond the Hawaiian archipelago and a decision would have to be made in the early hours whether to continue to the American mainland on the final leg of his 23,000-mile journey.

Talking as the sun rose over the Pacific after 42 hours of flight, Fossett said: "Confident is not the right word, but I am hopeful this is going to work out." If the billionaire manages to eke out his remaining fuel, he is expected to reach the finishing line in Kansas at about midday local time (6pm GMT). The fuel loss - equivalent to half the remaining load - was discovered on Tuesday night as Fossett reached India, the halfway point of his 80-hour journey. Mission controllers put the problem down to a discrepancy between fuel consumption calculations and readings from probes in the jet's fuel booms.

Managers of the £1.5m bid, bankrolled by Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic airline, said they needed jet-stream tailwinds of at least 64mph for the plane to to return without refuelling to the airstrip in the Midwest state of Kansas that it left on Monday night.

Paul Moore, GlobalFlyer's project manager, said: "Steve has insufficient fuel to complete the journey without the help of the jet-stream. He is quite literally at the mercy of the winds."

Flying solo non-stop around the world without refuelling is one of the few remaining aviation feats to be completed. The last attempt, in 1972, ended in disaster when an American-built plane crashed.

Fossett, 60, who made his fortune as an options trader, and Sir Richard, 54, are veterans of troubled record bids, including their attempt to circumnavigate the globe by hot-air balloon in 1998, when they were forced to ditch in the Pacific.

Flight engineers said the GlobalFlyer lost the fuel in the first three hours of the flight as it climbed to its cruising altitude of 45,000ft , some 15,000ft higher than commercial aircraft.

The plane, built almost entirely from carbon-fibre composites to make it as fuel- efficient as possible, took off from Salina with 18,000lbs of fuel on board, four times the weight of the aircraft itself. It now has just 5,500lbs of modified kerosene remaining.

From the jet via a satellite link, Fossett, who holds 62 adventuring world records, said: "This is a huge setback, to think we might not have the fuel to make it for the rest of the flight." He said he was considering options such as the distance the ultra-light jet could fly as a glider if it runs out of fuel.

But as he started to pump fuel from two reserve tanks in the wings, the normally upbeat Fossett admitted his confidence had sunk. He said: "There could be some kind of blockage; that could spoil the whole plan. I have to do the best I can to make it back."

Fossett said he was increasingly tired, and had slept for just three minutes the previous night as he ran tests to assess the fuel loss. The plane's designers said it was unlikely fuel had been lost from a leak; the probable reason was evaporation or controlled loss through a venting mechanism.