May the high-flying exploits of adventurer Steve Fossett (1944-2007) continue to inspire us.
SOLO FLIGHT AROUND THE WORLD. When Steve Fossett successfully circled the globe in July of 2002, his feat didn’t make much of a news media impact. It should have. Steve Fossett had just overcome five previous failed attempts to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a balloon. He had launched in Australia, flown all around the southern hemisphere, and landed well beyond his outback starting point. He endured nearly fifteen days alone and aloft, traveling over 34,000 miles. It wasn’t Fossett’s first great adventure, nor would it be his last.
JUST AN AVERAGE JOE. By appearances and background, Fossett was an unlikely hero. At the time, he was a 58-year old white male, a multi-millionaire businessman from Chicago. He was a hefty fellow; not your athletic, mountain-climbing physique. No folk hero or populist firebrand. And yet, in 1985, Fossett swam the English Channel. In 1992, he competed in the Alaskan Iditarod dog sled race. He completed the Ironman triathlon. And, in 1996, he took part in the 24 hours Le Mans Car race. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
SAILOR, PILOT, BALLOONIST… No doubt, his adventures may have cost him much of the fortune he made. But, before the tragic single-engine aircraft crash in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in September of 2007 that claimed his life, Fossett held world records in long distance for solo ballooning, duration for solo ballooning, first balloon crossings of Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian Oceans, seven fastest speed sailing titles, 13 World Sailing Speed Record Council titles, fastest trans-Atlantic sailing, round-the-world titles for medium airplanes, and US trans-continental titles for non-military aircraft.
NEW HEIGHTS I'M GAINING EVERYDAY. On August 11, 2002, Fossett attempted to fly a glider (a nonpropelled aircraft) to the highest altitude ever. He spent nearly three weeks waiting in New Zealand for the right conditions to fly a custom-built glider above 49,007 feet. His hope was to ride the updrafting lenticular cloud currents, which occur over mountains and create winds above 150 miles per hour, up into the stratosphere. But conditions weren’t quite right. After soaring all day with a 70-year old flying companion, he had to land the craft. And, as usual, Fossett vowed to try, try again.
IN COMPANY WITH LINDBERGH. The Spirit of America, the name of his record-breaking balloon, is now displayed next to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Not bad company! Fossett hoped that his flight and efforts would serve as inspiration to others. After landing the Spirit of America in Australia, he said “I hope that it’s some example, not that people will try ballooning, but that they will try and achieve something [important to them]."
DIVINELY FOOLISH THINGS. With the feats and spirit of Steve Fossett in mind, Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press quoted the words Walter Lippmann penned the week Amelia Earhart’s plane vanished near New Guinea:
"The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart's adventure. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. . . .They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lit now and then by great winds from the sky."
ADVENTURER FOR TODAY. I want my children and grandchildren (should I be blessed to have them) to know of Steve Fossett. The Fossett saga is one that deserves to be lifted up to the hearts and imaginations of all. Youth, yes, but also older “children,” too. For those who would mostly look back toward "the good ol’ days," thinking there are no new frontiers or that everyone has capitulated to consumerism, Fossett was a 21st-century adventurer who still saw and pursued new frontiers. Amid the cynicism of market-driven, tunnel-vision media, his was—and is—a story that breaks the bounds of predictability and formula. And the spirit of Steve Fossett is a renewed expression of something I recall as pervasive in my childhood.
Rest in peace, Steve, and may your kind ever be reborn and flourish.