GlobalFlyer flexes its graceful (but very lightly loaded) wings

 - March 30, 2007, 10:59 AM

Known as the Model 311 Capricorn by its builder, and the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer by its pilot and sponsor, Burt Rutan’s latest creation took to the sky on March 5–the first step in its creators’ goal of seeing the single-jet, single-seat aircraft circle the globe nonstop on one load of fuel. With Scaled project engineer and test pilot Jon Karkow at the controls, the initial flight lasted 1 hour 30 minutes.

After liftoff from Mojave, Karkow took the airplane to 12,000 feet and conducted stability tests from near stall speed (54 knots) to 110 knots. He retracted and extended the tricycle landing gear, and later extended the drag chutes that dirty the airplane enough for it to return to earth manageably. Karkow was pleased with the flying qualities of the 114-foot-span airplane, likening the roll rate to that of an open-class sailplane. To prevent c.g. changes with fuel sloshing at high angles of attack, Karkow throttled back for the climb to keep the deck angle relatively flat.

Beyond confirming that the unloaded airplane flies, the first flight means little in relation to the circumglobal attempt. The takeoff weight on March 5 was 5,250 pounds–less than a quarter of the 22,000-pound mtow envisioned for the record attempt. Of that 22,000 pounds, 18,000 pounds (a staggering 82 percent of mtow) will be fuel to feed the single Williams FJ44-3ATW turbofan for the 3.3 days the flight is expected to last. The solo pilot will be wealthy adventurer Steve Fossett, whose ballooning and Citation X exploits make him no stranger to the Fédération Aéronautique International, the body that sanctions aviation records.