Fossett suits up for space-glider adventure

Omarama, New Zealand - Omarama had never seen anything quite like it.

Two Americans dressed in yellow space suits clambered out of a rented motorhome and squeezed into the cramped cockpit of a glider parked on a grass airstrip on the edge of this remote southern New Zealand farming community.

Students from the tiny mountain village's one-room primary school came to watch. A sheep farmer flew his Cessna to the airstrip to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. Gliding fanatics drove in from far and wide.

Three weeks after he circled the globe solo by balloon, American adventurer Steve Fossett took a test flight on Wednesday in a glider he hopes to fly into the stratosphere - setting a new gliding altitude record along the way.

He and co-pilot Einar Enevoldson, a former Nasa test pilot, were the talk of Omarama - population about 250.

"We had the world gliding championships in 1995 and in the late '80s Halley's Comet came through - this was thought to be one of the best places in the world to see it - but we've never seen anything like this," said Doug White, headmaster at the local school.

White, who teaches gliding when he's not educating his students, lined about 20 children up behind Fossett's gleaming white glider before it was towed into the sky on Wednesday afternoon.

They looked on in amazement as Fossett and Enevoldson were helped into the specially modified German-built glider but had to leave before takeoff to get home - some of them live 50km away and are transported to and from school in a bus driven by White's wife.

If they had stuck around for takeoff, they would have seen a local glider pilot wearing a battered deer stalker hat hook the glider to a small propellor plane which towed it to about 2 100

metres, from where it drifted down to earth in a 30-minute test flight aimed at getting Fossett and Enevoldson used to flying in the spacesuits.

Fossett is waiting for strong high altitude "mountain wave" winds to propel him into the stratosphere at about 19 000 metres.

The powerful updrafts are fed by winds swirling around the Antarctic at this time of the year but Fossett also needs stiff low-level breezes to help him climb to the waves and since he arrived in New Zealand on Sunday, there has been barely a breath of wind.

His support team was planning to go sight seeing and skiing on Thursday.

Wednesday was spent getting used to the spacesuits.

"It is very confining, you can easily get claustrophobic," Fossett said as he was buckled, screwed and zipped into his suit. "In a lot of ways it feels like it is constricting your breathing, but it is not."

The pressurized suits enable Fossett and Enevoldson to fly at very high altitudes where the pressure is far lower than at the earth's surface.

"He could actually fly to the moon in this," said Mike Todd, the technician responsible for the suits.

Fossett said he enjoyed his 30-minute afternoon flight, but was disappointed by the lack of wind.

"The air was just absolutely smooth, which is very pleasant but it doesn't find us any lift," Fossett said.

They tested the glider's emergency parachute as it landed and declared it a success. "It felt exactly like it was supposed to feel," he said.

If Fossett gets the combination of high surface and high altitude winds he needs, his flight could smash the gliding record set by fellow American Bob Harris, who flew to 14 938 metres over California's Sierra Nevada range in 1986.

Fossett, 58, has his eye firmly set on a long-term goal of flying to the very edge of space at 30 500 metres. For that, he will need to build a special pressurised glider.

"Everybody would like to do space flight. The others who are doing this are primarily passengers," he said, referring to recent "space tourists" who have paid millions to be flown into orbit.

"In this case, I get to be the pilot. Although I'm not going into space, it is a lot of the same equipment and I get to fly it," he added.

Meanwhile, Omarama, which sits in a valley flanked by snowcapped mountains, is getting used to a higher than usual number of American visitors.

"Why do they call it a rest room, they don't sleep in there do they?" mused a waitress at the village diner after a visitor asked her for directions. - Sapa-AP


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