A strange, sleek bird will take to the skies this month in an attempt to fly further than any aircraft before it. The plane, called the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, last soared into the record books in March 2005, when aviator Steve Fossett successfully piloted it on the first solo, non-stop flight around the world. For Fossett and his team, though, the world is not enough. They plan to go one better: to take off from the United States, circle the globe eastwards and then cross the Atlantic a second time. They are awaiting a good window of weather, which could come as early as 7 February.
While the plane is a feat of engineering, Fossett’s new trip won’t pioneer or test any new technologies. Instead, the main challenge will be one of human endurance, says aeronautics curator Robert van der Linden of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Fossett will have to stay alert for roughly 80 hours. He plans to live on milkshakes, presumably since they are convenient, high on energy and low on toilet demands. “It’s a great testament to him as a pilot,” van der Linden says. Researchers have found that people show problems performing simple tasks after 24 hours without sleep, and the situation only gets worse the longer they stay awake. After 48 hours without shuteye, people tend to fall rapidly asleep even if they are trying to stay awake, says Kenneth Wright who studies sleep at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Adrenaline will certainly be helpful – but it might not be enough,” he says. On his first round-the-world flight, Fossett planned to take 30-minute power naps, but it was reported that he only ever grabbed a few minutes kip between looking at the controls.