SALINA, Kan., March 3 -- After three sleepless days and a nail-biting 24 hours wondering if he would have to ditch in the ocean for lack of fuel, millionaire aviator Steve Fossett rode a rollicking tailwind into America's heartland Thursday to become the first pilot to complete a solo nonstop flight around the globe.
Fossett guided his single-engine jet to a flawless landing here at 2:50 p.m. Eastern time and triumphantly disembarked on a brilliantly sunny day as thousands cheered. Elated but a bit wobbly, he hugged his wife, Peggy, and Richard Branson, the flamboyant chairman of Virgin Atlantic airline, which financed the trip.
Photo Gallery: Millionaire Steve Fossett lands his GlobalFlyer after flying for 67 hours and 23,000 miles around the world.
Branson promptly hosed down Fossett with champagne, which Fossett then swigged from the bottle. He looked remarkably chipper for someone who had been crammed into a seven-foot cockpit for 67 hours with only fortified milkshakes for sustenance.
"Well, that was something I wanted to do for a long time," Fossett, 60, told spectators and reporters. "It was a major ambition. I'm a really lucky guy."
Asked if he wanted to take a shower, he replied, "I wouldn't mind finding a toilet."
The landing was a huge relief to Virgin Atlantic and ground control officials, who had been distressed along with Fossett about whether he had enough fuel to complete the 23,000-mile journey -- Earth's circumference at the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, recognized as a circumnavigation in aviation.
The innovative plane, a virtual flying gas tank, unexpectedly burned or lost more than a ton of fuel right after takeoff Monday, forcing Fossett to consider aborting the trip in Hawaii. But by late Wednesday, he had minimized the problem and decided to keep the GlobalFlyer going across the eastern Pacific.
The mission recovered so quickly, in fact, that questions were raised about whether the fuel problem was a stunt to boost public interest.
"I think the incredible thing in life is that the truth is often stranger than fiction," Branson said. "As it turns out, almost everything that could have happened seemed to happen. There has been a lot of drama."
This small town was chosen as the departure and landing site because of its location in the middle of the country, as well as for a two-mile runway built by the Air Force decades ago at an airstrip now used by a flight school.
Fossett, of Chicago, is a sportsman and aviator who made history in 2002 for flying solo around the world in a hot-air balloon, and he holds dozens of other aviation, sailing and gliding records. He once ran a marathon two days after being out to sea for a month.
Fossett left from Salina at 7:47 p.m. Eastern time on Monday. He said Thursday that he did not sleep the first night and took about a half-dozen one- to three-minute catnaps each of the other two nights.
"It's sort of a unique human achievement," said Thomas Crouch, senior aeronautics curator of the National Air and Space Museum.
"Steve is this incredibly gutsy guy who goes out looking for challenges and taking them on. . . . Then you have the technological achievement of designing an airplane that will go around the world fast enough so one pilot can do it."