Steve Fossett

Prominent balloonist, aviator, and yachtsman who has set many world records for flight.

Steve Fossett is a millionaire stockbroker who engages in adventurous hobbies. As a youngster, he started rock climbing. As a college student at Stanford University, he climbed mountains and swam the Hellespont in Turkey—a classical test of strength and endurance that he swam both ways.

After earning his master of business administration degree at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Fossett moved to Chicago, where he made his fortune. However, he continued to engage in dangerous adventurous sports, continuing to try, despite many failures, until he succeeded. “I always thrive under pressure,” he claimed. In the late 1990’s, he concentrated on sailing and ballooning, sports in which he believed he could set world records. In January, 1997, he attempted to be the first person to circumnavigate the world in a hot-air balloon. He competed against three teams, the British Virgin Group of Richard Branson, an Australian team, and a Swiss team. Compared to the millions that his competitors were spending, Fossett’s bare-bones Solo Spirit balloon was relatively inexpensive, at $300,000.

Fossett’s 1997 flight failed when he had to land in northern India after six days, but he set a record for endurance and distance. His balloon traveled at heights of 18,000 to over 28,000 feet. With a broken heater, temperatures in the balloon were 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Fossett failed in a second attempt, in August, 1998, when he had to land in Russia. Later that year, he began his third attempt in North Africa, but he was forced to land in the Pacific after China refused permission to fly over their airspace. A rival team of Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, however, accomplished the feat shortly afterward. Fossett then sought to set sailing records in his Play Station Maxi Catamaran. In February, 2000, along with copilots Darrin Adkins and Alex Tai, Fossett set the around-the-world record for medium-weight airplanes in his Citation X two-engine business jet. The trip took 41 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds, about 6 hours less than the previous record. His average speed was 559 miles per hour. The same year, he set the U.S. coast-to-coast records for private planes in both directions in his Citation.

His August, 1998, balloon flight set the record for the longest solo aircraft flight and the second longest balloon flight. He also holds the record for several other distance and speed flights in his private plane.

In August of 2001, Fossett made a fifth attempt at a transglobal balloon flight, but bad weather forced him to land in southern Brazil, just one day after he had reached the halfway point of his trip. Despite the curtailed effort, however, Fossett still managed to set a new record for the longest solo balloon flight, with a trip lasting 12 days and 13 hours. With Fossett’s failed attempt, the solo transglobal balloon record remained unclaimed.


  • Conniff, Richard. “Racing with the Wind.” National Geographic 192, no. 3 (September, 1997). A good article describing the 1997 balloon competition. Includes pictures, diagrams, and maps.
  • Gannon, Robert. “The Great Balloon Race.” Popular Science 248, no. 5 (May, 1996). A description of the preparations by Fossett and other racers for the competition to circumnavigate the globe, with illustrations and graphic designs of the Solo Challenger and other balloons.
  • Hogan, David. “Up, Up, and Away.” Current Science 83, no. 6 (November 14, 1997). Describes Fossett’s 1997 balloon flight with illustrations and diagrams.


Richard Branson

Lighter-than-air craft

Record flights

Transglobal flight

Steve Fossett’s sixth attempt at an around-the-world balloon flight ended on August 17, 2001, when bad weather forced him to land in Brazil after successfully flying from Western Australia over the Pacific Ocean to South America.

(AP/Wide World Photos)