Born April 22, 1944, in Jackson, TN; son of a factory manager; married Peggy Viehland, c. 1968. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1966; Washington University, M.B.A., 1968.
Addresses: Home—Beaver Creek, CO. Office—c/o Marathon Racing, Inc./Steve Fossett Challenges, 401 S. LaSalle St., Ste. 200, Chicago, IL 60605.
Ran the information-technology division of a department store, c. late 1960s; joined Merrill Lynch; became commodities broker; founded Lakota Trading, a stock-options trading firm in Chicago; also a principal in Larkspur Securities Inc., and Marathon Securities, Inc.; semi-retired, 1990. Holder of several world records in aviation, hot-air ballooning, and yachting, including: first solo flight across the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon, 1995; first solo circumnavigation of the globe in a hot-air balloon, 2002; fastest circumnavigation of the world in sailboat (as skipper), 2004; first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the world in an airplane, 2005; highest altitude reached in a sailplane (as co-pilot), 2006.
Awards: Gold medal, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, 2002.
Adventurer Steve Fossett has achieved international renown as an aviator, sailor, and aeronaut in a hot-air balloon. By 2006, he had racked up an impressive list of 116 feats, many of them world records, such as the world's first nonstop solo flight, the fastest sailing time around the world, highest altitude in a glider plane and perhaps his best-known exploit: becoming the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon. Fossett's "life," asserted Newsweek writer Jerry Adler, "is a tribute to mankind's enduring dream of escaping the friction-bound Earth into effortless flight—and to the fabulously creative, preposterously expensive technology that makes it possible."
Fossett was born in Tennessee in 1944, but grew up in Garden Grove, California, an Orange County community. As a youngster, he was diagnosed with asthma—likely related to the noxious air quality in the Los Angeles area at the time—and bucked conventional wisdom of the 1950s that cautioned against strenuous physical activities for asthma sufferers when he made his first hiking expedition as a Boy Scout at the age of eleven. He enjoyed the experience so much that he convinced his rather sedentary dad, a factory manager, to take up the hobby as well. Fossett remained in Scouts through his teens, and even earned the Eagle Scout designation, a notoriously difficult rank to achieve.
Fossett pursued his passion for outdoor activities throughout his college years. Before his senior year at Stanford University, he traveled to the Swiss Alps to climb the Matterhorn, a peak that even the most seasoned mountaineers considered a fearsome test of ability and endurance. On the same trip, he also scaled the Eiger, and nearly died on the descent when he slid several hundred feat down a glacier. Not yet finished with his travels, he headed east to Turkey, where he swam the two-mile strait known as the Dardanelles, which connects the Sea of Marmara to Aegean waters.
After earning his Stanford degree in 1966, Fossett went on to Washington University in St. Louis for a graduate business degree. At the time, he believed computer science was the new career frontier, but his first post-college job running the information-technology division of a department store proved unsatisfactory. "I studied income levels in Chicago and found that the two highest-paying occupations were institutional stockbroker and commodities broker," he recalled in an interview with Times of London writer John Naish. Switching careers, he joined the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and over the next two decades became one of Chicago's top commodities brokers. His expertise was in trading soybean futures, and he grew wealthy in the process. It was also a high-pressure job well-suited to his personality, and Fossett characterized it as "very stimulating, standing on the exchange floor, competing to make the right decision," he told British journalist Jasper Gerard of the London Sunday Times. "Making good decisions quickly is what rewards you in that business."
Fossett went on to start his own stock-options trading firm in Chicago, and though he admittedly spent much of the 1980s working, he still pursued endurance-sport challenges during his vacations. At first, he usually failed, such as his initial experience with the 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon, the world's longest cross-country ski event, but would return the next year with further training and better equipment. It took him four tries to swim the English Channel, and his 1985 time of 22-plus hours actually resulted in an award, the Van Audenaard Endurance Trophy from the Channel Swimming Association for the slowest time clocked that year. He also entered several Iditarod races, the famous Alaska competition in which participants lead their dog-sled teams across an 1,100-mile stretch of brutal winter terrain. Fossett also managed to accomplish a personal goal of climbing the highest peaks on every continent, except for Mount Everest in the Himalayas—though he had certainly tried. The lack of oxygen at the world's highest peak proved too great a danger for his asthma-scarred bronchial tubes.
In 1990, Fossett left Chicago and moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he had a vacation home. For the next decade he eased himself into retirement, keeping an eye on his firm and investments on a part-time basis. The arrangement allowed him to pursue his adventure-sport challenges full-time, though his wife Peggy—an admitted white-knuckle flyer—rarely accompanied him. He also decided to concentrate on two areas where equipment and preparation seemed to lessen the risk of death or injury: sailing and ballooning. In August of 1996, he set a new world record for sailing the Pacific, clocking in a time of 20 days and 13 hours on his custom-built 105-foot catamaran, PlayStation. Already an accomplished aircraft pilot, Fossett had a state-of-the-art hot-air balloon made in Britain for $250,000, and began traversing the length of one continent at a time in the Solo Challenger. His first brush with fame came in February of 1995, when he set a new solo balloon record by crossing the Pacific Ocean. His South Korea-to-Saskatchewan flight was 5,400 miles, the longest ever made by a solo balloonist, and he was also the first person ever to cross the Pacific alone in that type of craft.
Fossett set out to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon, one of the last unattained goals of human exploration. His first attempt was in early 1996, but he barely made it across North America. In early 1997, he took off from St. Louis, Missouri, and made it all the way to India before touching down; a detour to avoid flying over Libya, which had been reluctant to grant him permission to enter Libyan air space, left him with a shortage of propane to keep the balloon aloft. Despite the aborted trip, he set a new distance record in ballooning on that try, journeying 9,594 miles, as well as an endurance record for piloting his balloon with little sleep for just over six days. A year later, Russian military personnel rescued him when he crashed near the Black Sea on his third attempt.
Fossett's fourth try, in 1998, also ended in mishap: He encountered a thunderstorm, which pose the most risk to balloonists. He thought it best to fly above it, and "I thought it was safe," he told Camas Davis in National Geographic Adventure. "I was asleep. But the balloon sank and was caught in the turbulence and ruptured. I fell from 29,000 feet. I made a rather hasty exit from the capsule—it was on fire. I just got out with my long underwear, a life raft, and a rescue beacon." He waited 23 hours for rescue. Such near-death experiences failed to dampen his enthusiasm, and Fossett has said that his background in the high-pressure world of options trading prepared him for his second career. "I don't find it terribly stressful to be faced with a problem and I don't tend to freak out over anything," he told Lorna MacLaren in the Glasgow Herald.
Fossett had several other opponents in his race to circumnavigate the globe via hot-air balloon. One was British mogul Richard Branson, but the two ended their rivalry and joined forces in December of 1998. They took off from Morocco and had nearly reached Hawaii when bad weather forced them to bail out of the craft and wait for rescue. A month later, Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss doctor, and Brian Jones of Britain became the first balloonists to circle the globe. Undaunted, Fossett decided that he could best Piccard and Jones' feat by making his balloon flight the world's first solo circumnavigation, but for a time he returned to setting new yachting and aviation records. In late 1999 he set a 24-hour distance record on the seas off New Zealand on his boat, and several months later broke the transcontinental record for the U.S. east-to-west route for private aircraft in his Cessna Citation X jet, clocking in a time of just three hours, 29 minutes.
In 2001, Fossett made his fifth attempt to circumnavigate the Earth by himself in a balloon, but miscalculated and did not have enough oxygen to last the trip. "When I talked on the satellite phone with my mission control center, I'd be slurring my words from oxygen starvation," he explained to National Geographic Adventure's Davis. "I was on the edge of proper mental alertness." Finally, in July of 2002 his new balloon, Spirit of Freedom, touched down in Queensland, Australia, after 13 days, 12 hours, and 16 minutes, making him the first solo aeronaut to circumnavigate the globe.
Nearing his sixtieth birthday, Fossett was far from ready to retire from his record-setting exploits. In April of 2004, he and the expert crew hired to staff his new catamaran, Cheyenne, finished sailing around the world in a new record time of 58 days, nine hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. The following March, Fossett set a daring new aviation record in the GlobalFlyer for a solo, nonstop flight around the world. He did it in a specially modified aircraft built by Scaled Composites, the experimental-aircraft company owned by Burt Rutan, creator of the first privately built space vehicle, SpaceShipOne. Branson, still immensely richer than Fossett thanks to his Virgin Group holdings, underwrote the cost of the single jet engine craft, which boasted 13 fuel tanks. Fossett made the 23,000-mile, Kansas-to-Kansas trip in 67 hours and one minute, flying at an average speed of 342 miles an a hour. He spent the entirety of the trip—nearly three straight days—in a recliner seat, unable to stand, and with very little sleep. Nourishment came in liquid form, via Slim-Fast shakes, and he had a catheter inserted to handle the issue of bathroom breaks.
In August of 2006, Fossett set a new altitude record for a glider craft along with co-pilot Einar Enevoldson, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) test pilot. This was the first engine-less aircraft to reach an altitude of nine miles above the Earth, at 50,699 feet. They wore special NASA-designed flight suits for the flight, which took place over the Andes Mountains in Argentina, and the feat was done under the auspices of the Perlan Project, an effort to reach the Earth's stratosphere in an unpowered aircraft. Fossett is sometimes asked if he would make space his next frontier to conquer, but simply being a passenger would not be challenge enough for him, he admitted to Newsweek's Adler. "Flying in the space shuttle would be fascinating," Fossett said. "But I'd want to be the pilot."
In interviews, Fossett often mentions the role scouting played in his formative years, and he remains involved as an executive board member for the national organization, Boy Scouts of America. Very often those same articles note that he has an average physique, and even tends toward the paunchy at times. He cites his less-than-ideal physical condition as the best example to others. "The beauty of adventure sports is that you do not have to be at the pinnacle of physical excellence," he told Naish in the Times. "They are readily accessible in spite of minor physical handicaps." His stunning record of achievement was detailed in his 2006 memoir, Chasing the Wind: The Autobiography of Steve Fossett. Perennially asked why he takes such risks, Fossett views his adventures merely as a set of problems to be solved. "I don't seek risk," he told Gerard in the Sunday Times interview. "I don't like to be scared and I spend a lot of effort figuring out how to reduce risks."
Guardian (London, England), April 7, 2004, p. 4.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), July 6, 2002, p. 15.
National Geographic Adventure, November/December 2001, p. 37.
Newsweek, October 6, 2003, p. 70.
New York Times, February 26, 1995; March 4, 2005.
Popular Science, June 1, 2005, p. 66.
Success, November 1997, p. 56.
Sunday Times (London, England), April 11, 2004, p. 5.
Times (London, England), September 16, 2006, p. 6.