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Fossett in New Zealand in 2002 after a failed attempt to break the world gliding altitude record. He finally succeeded four years later, establishing a record—50,722 feet—that still stands.
The plane trundled down the runway, bumping over the nubs and nicks of the remote desert airstrip, and rose on the warm late summer thermals toward a landscape of mountains as bleak and silent as a block of tombs. At the stick sat perhaps the most famous aviator since Chuck Yeager, a man who had tempted and beaten death so many times that his life seemed to be in the hands of angels. Among his best-known feats were his balloon flights, including the first solo trip around the world. There were also his airplane adventures—again, he became the first person to circle the globe nonstop. He set two transcontinental air speed records in a single day and, among dozens of other milestones, boasted the highest glider altitude (50,722 feet) and the top speed for airships. As if flying feats weren’t enough, he climbed 350 mountains, including several of the tallest peaks in the world, set sailing records, and competed in the Iditarod dog race and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.