Steve Fossett (1944-2007): Set More Than 100 World Records in Five Different Sports

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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Doug Johnson with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Today we tell about the adventurer and explorer Steve Fossett. He was famous for extraordinary efforts setting world records in flying, ballooning and sailing. He set or broke more than one hundred records in five different sports. Many of these records still hold. He also competed in running, dog racing and swimming.

Fossett pushed the limits of his abilities to reach his many goals. And, his many projects helped advance the science and technology of flight.

Steve Fossett did not really look like or sound like a person who was an extreme athlete and adventurer.   But he made a career out of using his energy and intelligence to aim for and reach some of the most difficult goals in sailing and flying.

STEVE FOSSETT: "What really appealed to me was the adventure and the personal achievement. I never tired of the satisfaction of reaching the summit of another mountain peak."

Fossett once said that he was most proud of being the first person to fly around the world alone in a hot-air balloon. In nineteen ninety-five he had some practice when he became the first person to fly alone in a hot-air balloon across the Pacific Ocean. To make a trip around the world alone, it was necessary to have an improved autopilot device.

Fossett had one of his team members develop a more advanced balloon autopilot that would allow him to safely sleep and do other tasks while flying.

Steve Fossett attempted the hot-air balloon trip around the world six times. This was not easy to do. He flew in the balloon's capsule that was so small he could not stand upright. During his fourth attempt in nineteen ninety-eight, he was almost killed during a thunderstorm off the coast of Australia. He fell nine thousand meters into the Coral Sea with his balloon's capsule on fire.   He was later rescued at sea.

STEVE FOSSETT: Surely, we'd learned from so many mistakes, and I was due to put it all together.

Fossett successfully made the trip in two thousand two. The trip started and ended in Australia. He travelled more than thirty-three thousand kilometers for more than fourteen days. He only slept about three hours a day. Much of his flight took place at an altitude of more than eight thousand meters, so he had to breathe air from a liquid oxygen system. On this flight, Fossett set other records including a speed record of three hundred twenty-two kilometers per hour. One main problem with earlier balloon flights was the threat of dangerous storms. A team of weather experts e-mailed and talked to Fossett by satellite telephone to help him avoid such weather.

The capsule of Steve Fossett's hot-air balloon, the Spirit of Freedom, is at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.   It is there as an example for other people to try and succeed in doing something important to them.

James Stephen Fossett was born in nineteen forty-four in Jackson, Tennessee. He grew up in Garden Grove, California. His father was a supervisor in a soap factory owned by the Proctor & Gamble company. Steve learned to hike and climb mountains. He said that when he was twelve years old, he climbed his first mountain, and he kept going by choosing bigger and bigger goals.

Steve Fossett attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, California and earned a degree in economics. In nineteen sixty-eight, he received a graduate degree in business from Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. He married his wife, Peggy, that same year.

Fossett became successful working as a financial trader in Chicago, Illinois. He formed his own company, Lakota Trading, in nineteen eighty.

He became very wealthy.   Fossett was successful as a trader for the same reasons he would become a skilled explorer: he was competitive, smart and careful.

Steve Fossett made millions of dollars. But he began to miss the sports he had found so interesting in his youth. So he began climbing mountains and competing in running and skiing races. He used his money to finance his many adventurous projects. Other large projects were financed by companies or individuals.

He began climbing mountains with his friend, Pat Morrow, in the nineteen eighties. Pat Morrow was trying to become the first person to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent. Fossett climbed the highest mountain on every continent except Mount Everest.   He also trained to swim the length of the English Channel between France and England. It took him four attempts over several years. But in nineteen eighty-five, he became the two hundred and seventieth person to swim across the Channel.

Fossett began to spend more and more of his time on adventure sports.

STEVE FOSSETT: In nineteen ninety-one, I turned the business career upside down. I decided to make the business secondary and to give my adventure goals the primary focus of my life. I decided to pursue the highest goals in sailing and ballooning. In ballooning, that would be to make the first round-the-world balloon flight.

During this period, Steve Fossett began his many attempts to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon. He also started setting sailing speed and distance records. He set a total of twenty-one world sailing records. For example, he set speed records for a race around Ireland as well as the Transpac race, from San Francisco to Hawaii.

He hired special boat designers to create a catamaran racing boat made out of aerospace-technology carbon fiber. The boat was called the PlayStation, then later renamed the Cheyenne. In two thousand four, Fossett and his crew sailed around the world in fifty-eight days, six days faster than the earlier record.

Many of Steve Fossett's most extraordinary adventures were as a pilot. In two thousand five, he became the first person to fly a plane alone around the world without stopping for fuel. He flew almost thirty-seven thousand kilometers in sixty-seven hours.

The next year he set the nonstop distance record for a plane flying with one pilot. He flew from Florida to England, the long way, covering more than forty-one thousand kilometers in just under seventy-seven hours.   He made these flights on the GlobalFlyer, a plane supported by Richard Branson, the owner of the Virgin Atlantic company. The special technologies and inventions used to make this plane helped further the science of flight.

Also in two thousand six, Fossett and another pilot set an altitude record for flying a glider, a plane with no engine. They flew the glider into the Earth's stratosphere at a height of more than fifteen thousand meters.   That was one of ten world records Fossett set for flying a glider.

Steve Fossett did not limit himself to sailing and flying. He also competed in the one thousand eight hundred kilometer race through Alaska called the Iditarod Dogsled Race. And, he entered the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Competitors must complete one hundred eighty kilometers of bicycling, forty-two kilometers of running and almost four kilometers of swimming.

Steve Fossett once said that he did not like risks. He knew this might sound strange given his activities.

But he said what he tried to do was reduce risk with careful planning, technological development and the help of the best scientists and other experts. He said he did not do sports because of the excitement but for the personal success.

Yet, no amount of planning can prevent the possibility of risk in life. In September of two thousand seven, Steve Fossett flew a small plane from a private ranch in the state of Nevada. His plan was to return in a few hours. But his plane disappeared. For months, state, private, and volunteer rescue teams searched the area where his plane was believed to have flown. In February of two thousand eight, a judge in Chicago declared Steve Fossett legally dead. He was sixty-three years old.

A year after he disappeared, a hiker in eastern California found Fossett's pilot's license. Rescue teams began the search again, this time finding pieces of his plane. Genetic testing on pieces of bone found near the crash area later identified them as Steve Fossett's.

Steve Fossett succeeded in all areas of air travel except space. He once said that flying in a space shuttle would be very interesting, but if he went into space, he would have wanted to be the pilot. This independence, bravery and energy made Steve Fossett one of the great adventurers of modern times.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Doug Johnson.