Branson in bid for 'last great aviation record'

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The Independent US

Looking like the product of an unnatural union between a glider and a Zeppelin, the world's lightest - and oddest - international airliner was rolled into public view for the first time from a hangar in the California desert yesterday.

The £1.5m Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, funded by Sir Richard Branson, will, this month, begin test flights as part of the British billionaire's project to secure another first in extreme travel, after nearly two decades of dramatic bids to traverse the planet in fast boats and huge balloons.

The space-age plane, in effect a flying fuel tank powered by an engine from a small business jet, is expected to attempt the first solo circumnavigation of the globe without refuelling either this spring or in the autumn.

Despite sponsoring the bid, Sir Richard will not be the first choice pilot, ceding the cramped cockpit to another middle-aged billionaire with a taste for danger, the American adventurer Steve Fossett.

Both men yesterday declared themselves delighted with their cutting-edge flying machine as it was unveiled at the headquarters of its manufacturer, Scaled Composites, in the Mojave Desert 70 miles east of Los Angeles, before admitting that it stood a significant risk of exploding into a giant fireball.

Mr Fossett, 59, said: "The highest risk is on take-off when it is fully loaded. I think that it is a reasonable risk. But you've just got one shot at this."

The jet will carry nine tons of military aviation fuel in its 114ft-long wings and two stabilising booms. By the time its 17 fuel tanks have been emptied, GlobalFlyer will weigh just two tons.

The two billionaires hope the aircraft will complete the Jules Verne-style voyage across 25,000 miles in 80 hours by catching the jetstream at heights of up to 52,000ft.

Sir Richard, 53, who will fly the plane if his former ballooning comrade falls ill, said that catching his first glimpse of the aircraft left him torn about whether he wanted to be on board as well.

Dressed in a silver flight suit as he addressed the media, the entrepreneur, who has said he expects the £2.2m cost of the project to be offset by global coverage of the record bid, explained: "The plane looks magnificent. I just wish there were two seats on it, but then sometimes I don't.

"It is an incredibly daunting project. Others have tried and failed before. It is the last great aviation record."

The aircraft, which is more than three times as wide as it is long, has been built almost entirely from an ultra-light composite material made from sandwiches of carbon fibre and a honeycomb structure.

Despite the dangers, Mr Fossett, who will spend the entire flight awake inside the 7ft-long cockpit, said he was willing to take the risk in order to book his place in history. The self-made financier said: "I like great challenges, I like to do things that haven't been done before. I want to be a person of achievement."