Steve Fossett, who has been declared dead aged 63, made his fortune on the Chicago futures exchange and embarked on a dogged campaign to break more world records than any other sportsman in history; he set 116 records in hot air balloons, sailing boats, gliders and powered aircraft, getting into numerous scrapes and surviving several brushes with death.
In 2002, after a series of dramatic failures, Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone in a hot air balloon, completing 19,428.6 miles around the Southern Hemisphere in two weeks.
During a previous attempt, in 1998, his balloon caught fire and ruptured during a thunderstorm after 14,000 miles and he plunged 29,000 ft into the shark-infested Coral Sea off Queensland. For several hours no one knew whether he was alive or dead. His eventual rescue after 23 hours made international headlines.
Three years after his ballooning triumph, in March 2005 Fossett became the first person to fly an aeroplane solo around the world without refuelling - completing the journey in 67 hours. Four months later he and a co-pilot completed a transatlantic flight in a replica First World War wood and canvas bi-plane, navigating the route from Newfoundland to Clifden on the west coast of Ireland with nothing but a sextant and a compass.
In February 2006 Fossett again circumnavigated the globe non-stop and smashed the record for the longest flight by any aircraft in history; he covered 26,389.3 miles, beating the previous record of 25,361 miles set by the Breitling Orbiter balloon in 1999.
advertisementAfter keeping himself going during the 76 hour 45 minute flight with 10-minute catnaps and a steady diet of milkshakes, Fossett was forced to make a last-minute diversion from Kent International to Bournemouth Airport; he developed a generator malfunction over Reading which gave him just 30 minutes to land the plane before the batteries went flat. He made it just in time, bursting two tyres on landing.
With co-pilots, Fossett broke some dozen glider records, including, in 2006, the altitude record, with a flight which took him up 50,671ft over the Andes.
As a yachtsman he set 23 official world records and nine distance race records in his maxi-catamaran Cheyenne (formerly named PlayStation). In 2001 he and his crew set a transatlantic record of four days 17 hours, breaking the previous record by 43 hours 35 minutes. Three years later he circumnavigated the globe in 58 days, nine hours and 32 minutes, lopping nearly six days off the previous record.
Not content with mere mechanical propulsion, the indefatigable Fossett swam the Dardanelles; ran the Boston Marathon; raced in the Ironman Triathlon; skied in the 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon; ran in the 1,165-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska; climbed the highest mountains on six of the seven continents (only Everest eluded him); and drove in the Le Mans and Daytona 24-hour races.
In Britain he was known, among other things, for his dogged attempts to swim the English Channel. He succeeded on his fourth attempt in 1985, in a swim which took 22 hours and 15 minutes and earned him a prize for that year's slowest crossing. After staggering ashore in France he was whisked off to hospital suffering from hypothermia.
With his paunchy physique and thinning hair, Fossett was an unlikely daredevil adventurer. He did not appear to enjoy the limelight and was reserved and awkward in interviews, regarding the attention he attracted as an inevitable but unwelcome distraction from the serious business of breaking records. He became animated only when discussing plans for yet another endurance attempt.
He was known in Britain for his friendship with Sir Richard Branson, an erstwhile rival balloonist who became a co-sponsor.
Branson once described Fossett as "a loner: half-Forrest Gump, half android" and suggested that he was not so much interested in sport for its own sake as in testing the limits of his own endurance: "If there's an ocean to swim, he'll choose Christmas Day and it must be snowing and, if possible, the only day in the last decade when the channel ices over," Branson observed. "That's Steve for you."
James Stephen Fossett was born on April 22 1944 at Jackson, Tennessee, one of three children of a manager with a pharmaceutical company; he was brought up at Garden Grove, California. As a child he was fascinated by stories of adventure in National Geographic, but found his hunger to prove himself physically stifled at school, where he failed to get into the cross-country and swimming teams on account of asthma.
He found an outlet for his energies in the Boy Scouts. "When I was 12," he told an interviewer, "I climbed my first mountain, and I just kept going, taking on more diverse and grander projects." Aged 13 he became an Eagle Scout, a rank achieved by very few, and he would later serve as president of the National Eagle Scout Association and as a member of the World Scout Committee and of the executive board of the National Boy Scouts of America. "I learned my values in the Boy Scouts," he said, "and I am proud of that."
Fossett took a degree in Economics and Philosophy from Stanford University and (after swimming the Dardanelles) an MBA from the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. After an unsatisfactory period running IT for a department store, he took a job with the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch in Chicago, specialising in soya beans. Eventually he founded his own firm, Lakota Trading, and moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado.
Although Fossett built up a personal fortune of at least $50 million, he disliked being described as a millionaire, arguing that people should not be described in terms of how much money they have. His heart was always in the quest for sporting adventure. At college he became an endurance sports fanatic, undertaking challenging wilderness hikes and college swimming feats. As a young man he was one of the first particpants in the Worldloppet, a series of cross-country ski marathons around the world. In 1980 he became the eighth skier to compete in all 10 of the Worldloppet races, a feat which earned him a medallion.
At some point in his thirties Fossett typed out a list of his lifetime sporting goals. These included swimming the English Channel, climbing the highest mountains on six continents, establishing eight world records in sailing, and flying non-stop around the world in a balloon. Once his business was firmly established he set out to tick items off the list. He achieved them all - and more. He became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Explorers' Club, and in 2002 won the Gold Medal of the Fédération Aeronautique Internationale.
Fossett was reticent about discussing the dangers he faced, dismissing his various misadventures as "undesirable circumstances", and he never allowed anything to get in the way of his quest for new feats. "The things I do are things that a lot of people would like to do," he explained. "What's unusual is that I actually go out and do them."
On September 3 last year Fossett took off in a single-engine plane from a private airstrip in Nevada on a planned three-hour excursion to search for a suitable lake bed for a world land-speed record attempt. He had enough fuel for four to five hours, so when he failed to return after six, air search teams were sent out to look for him.
Steve Fossett is survived by his wife Peggy, whom he married in 1968, and by 60 of his records which remain unbroken. There were no children.