Branson unveils new solo plane

Intrepid Sir Richard Branson today announced a new, futuristic-looking aircraft that he hopes will become the first to be piloted solo around the world.

To be called the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, the plane could complete a round-world journey in 80 hours and fly at an altitude of more than 50,000ft.

The 285mph aircraft will be piloted either by record-holder Steve Fossett who was Sir Richard's partner in his last global ballooning attempt, or Sir Richard, who will be reserve pilot.

The single-pilot, single-engined plane is being built in the Mojave Desert in California by a company called Scaled Composites.

It resembles three planes, with two fuel-carrying fuselages flanking the central cockpit area and all three sections connected by 400 square feet of wing.

The attempt will take place next year - either around April or from October onwards depending on the weather and with a take-off from a central USA location.

Sir Richard made his announcement in London today, just as his arch rival British Airways was organising the last two days of its passenger Concorde services.

He and Mr Fossett are undertaking a rigorous training regime to prepare them for the physical and technical challenges of flying solo around the world.

Sir Richard, who is the Virgin Atlantic chairman, said: "Like Concorde, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer will be a sleek and slim aircraft but will be super fuel efficient."

The aircraft, which is being designed by top aviation designer Burt Rutan, will display a livery adapted from the familiar red-and-white of Virgin.

The Virgin plan is for the aircraft to follow the jetstream across the Atlantic to the UK. From there the aircraft will route south to the Mediterranean and then route through the Gulf to Pakistan, India, China and Japan.

It will then cross the Pacific and head back to the launch destination.

Weighing just 22,066lb and only 3,577lb empty, the aircraft will have 17 fuel tanks. The cockpit will be 7.7ft long and large enough for the pilot to lie down and to house food, water and personal equipment.

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