Last year saw aviation records set that will be hard to beat, if not utterly impossible.
The biggest story, which made news all over the world, was Steve Fossett’s non-stop, unrefueled solo flight around the world in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, but there were other, less dramatic records set. Most may endure longer, for Fossett broke his own 2005 record earlier this year.
On the other hand, there are records just waiting to be broken that have stood since the 1930s and ’40s, according to Michael Pablo, assistant director for contests and records at the National Aeronautic Association.
Fossett’s 2005 flight set internationally-recognized records for Speed Around the World and Solo Non-Stop, Non-Refueled Distance. The speed record – an average 342.24 miles per hour – broke Voyager’s absolute record of 115 mph, set nearly 20 years earlier. GlobalFlyer and Voyager both were designed by Burt Rutan. Voyager was flown by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager (no kin to the general).
GlobalFlyer weighs only 3,350 pounds dry, but that shot to 22,000 pounds when fully fueled for the record flight. It hadn’t been flown with full fuel aboard before Fossett took off at dusk on Feb. 28, as an all-up test flight was considered too dangerous.
The flight, which started at Salina, Kan., was stressful. Fossett got little sleep and little to eat, other than milkshakes. There were significant technical difficulties ranging from GPS problems to a mysterious loss of fuel. Fossett coped with all of them, landing back at Salina on March 3, just 67 hours after takeoff.
In March of this year Fossett shattered all records, including his own, by flying GlobalFlyer non-stop – solo – without refueling – not only around the world but on across the Atlantic for a second time, but that’s another story.
Fossett broke a record that had held up for two decades. Troy Bradley, one of the world’s most accomplished balloonists, broke one that had stood for 64 years.
Bradley set a new record for duration – time aloft – in February of last year, breaking the one set in 1941. His is not an absolute record, like Fossett’s, but is impressive nonetheless: 46 hours, 50 minutes. His flight between Texas and Georgia in a non-pressurized gas balloon of between 400 and 600 cubic meters – you see how narrowly defined these records can be – beat the old time by 40 minutes. It almost broke Bradley’s 2002 record for distance, as well, but prevailing winds didn’t cooperate to that extent.
Oddly, when Bradley was ready to launch from Amarillo, “the helium capital of the world,” he couldn’t find a supplier. A helium truck from his home town of Albuquerque saved the day.
Had it not been for Fossett’s record, a Boeing 777-200LR would have set the absolute distance record for jet aircraft of all classes. In November, Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann and a team of Boeing pilots flew 13,422 miles from Hong Kong to London, setting a new non-stop record for aircraft weighing more than 300,000 kilograms, or roughly 661,000 pounds. The previous record was set in 1989 by a Boeing 747 flying 10,588 miles from London to Sydney. Fossett obviously had some pretty heavy competition.
The 777 team actually surpassed the old distance record for jets that Fossett had shattered earlier in the year: 12,532 miles set by yet another Boeing, a B-52H, in 1962.
A fascinating record was set in December by Dick Rutan, flying XCOR Aerospace’s EZ-Rocket – a Burt Rutan Long-EZ with twin rocket engines in its tail. The distance wasn’t great – just 9.94 miles – but it was the longest flight yet by any ground-launched, rocket-powered airplane. The recently-formed Rocket Racing League is pinning its hopes on similar aircraft.
MOST MEMORABLE RECORDS
The National Aeronautic Association is the official verifier and recorder of aviation records set in or from the United States. The organization provides observers for many record attempts and compiles the data necessary to certify aviation and spaceflight records of all kinds, says Mike Pablo. In addition to those already mentioned, Pablo has four others on his “most memorable” list for 2005.
In June of last year, John Parker set a new record for Speed Over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course in piston aircraft. He flew his Thunder Mustang at 376.18 mph, beating the old record for his airplane’s weight class – set in 1999 – by 76 mph. Pablo points out that new technology was needed to verify Parker’s blistering speed. “Traditional methods of measuring speed were not accurate enough,” he says. NAA used a GPS system that takes readings 20 times a second and can fix location within inches for Parker’s flight
Another of Pablo’s “most memorable” records was set in an ultralight glider by David Stevenson, who flew 553.68 miles from Jasper, Tenn., to Hampton, S.C., in April of last year. Stevenson kept his borrowed Alisport Silent 2 aloft for nine and a half hours. An ultralight glider is one weighing less than 220 kg, or 485 pounds.
Model aircraft builder Ken Jennings set a record for Radio Controlled Electric Powered Flight in West Middlesex, Pa., last October. He flew his model helicopter at a speed of 75.32 mph, some 15 mph faster than the 2004 record he bested. Jennings is an electrical engineer who holds a number of records for model helicopters and expects to set more of them with his current pace-setter.
There is an impressive record category that is still evolving, Pablo says. It is Largest Canopy Formation by parachutists. Last November a new record – 85 skydivers perfectly set up in a diamond formation with their parachutes deployed – was set at Lake Wales, Fla. The same group had set a 70-person record two years earlier. Four airplanes dropped the skydivers at three different altitudes at carefully-planned intervals in order for the formation to be assembled. The formation took about nine minutes to complete and was held for 17 seconds before breaking apart, Pablo said.
TEN MOST WANTED
“NAA encourages pilots of all levels of experience to set records,” Pablo said. “Dozens of records are established each year. National and world records can be set in any type of aircraft and for a variety of different tasks — including altitude, speed and distance. Airplane records are classified by engine-type and aircraft weight, making it possible for a variety of aviators — even pilots owning small single-engine planes – to establish national or world marks.”
The NAA publishes a “Ten Most Wanted” list each year, offering encouragement to aviators flying a wide variety of airplanes. The current list includes the absolute record for piston aircraft altitude, which is 56,046 feet – set on Oct. 22, 1938, by Italian pilot Mario Pezzi, flying a single-engine Caproni Ca. 161. An additional 1,682 feet – 500 meters – will be needed to set a new record.
An intriguing possibility is the closed-course distance record for a piston-powered seaplane. That was set by another Italian, Mario Stoppani, in 1937. He flew a three-engine, twin-float reconnaissance bomber, a CRDA CANT Z.506, a distance of 3,231 miles without landing. Setting a new record of 3,263.44 miles or more looks like a job for a Consolidated PBY-5A, the great Navy patrol plane of World War II. Many are available, just looking for work such as this.
BUT WHAT ABOUT…
There are records that nobody seems to bother with. One of them is for Greatest Payload Carried to 2,000 Meters (6,560 feet), by a piston-powered aircraft weighing from 6,614 to 13,228 pounds (another of those narrowly defined categories). It was set in 1972 by M.F. Tuytjens, who flew a Dornier 28D toting a load of 2,205 pounds – basically 1,000 kilograms. This one should be broken easily by anyone with a little imagination and some cash in the bank. The performance needed to set a new record? Only 2,271 pounds.
It would take a bit more cash – but not much more speed – to beat the record set in 1988 by Charles Classen and Phillip Greth, who flew a G-35 Bonanza around the world – at an average speed of 54.37 mph, calculated to include all the time spent on the ground. A new record could be set by exceeding 54.92 mph – not as easy as the numbers might lead us to believe.
In the same class – piston engine aircraft weighing between 2,205 and 3,858 pounds – John Harris set a Speed Over 100 km Closed Circuit record in 1975. He flew a Bellanca Skyrocket II at 282.87 mph. NAA would like to see a new record exceeding 285.70 mph.
Surely there are readers out there who can look at these long-standing records and say, “I can do that!”