The Record Setter

March/April 2008

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The Record Setter

Photo: Mary Frances Howard

James Stephen Fossett first performed an extraordinary act of endurance during Big Game week his senior year. He swam across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz in 48-degree water. When he scrambled out of the choppy surf and unveiled his Beat Cal banner, prison guards promptly shoved him back in the water (but not before a photographer could get a picture of the banner). Six hours later, he dragged himself to shore near Fisherman's Wharf, hypothermic, exhausted and in possession of a new purpose in life. “It was the first and last stunt I undertook purely for publicity winning purposes,” Fossett wrote in his autobiography, Chasing the Wind. “After that triumph, my motivation for achieving my goals in adventure pursuits would be for my own personal satisfaction.”

A world-famous adventurer and the first person to circle the planet alone in a hot-air balloon, Fossett, '66, disappeared during a solo flight in Nevada on September 3. The man who survived numerous crashes, including a nearly 30,000-foot drop in a balloon, was presumed dead after an intensive monthlong search found no sign of him or his single-engine aircraft. He was 63 years old.

An Eagle Scout, the Stanford economics major and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother earned an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis. After making his fortune with his brokerage firms Lakota Trading, Marathon Securities and Larkspur Securities, he retired in 1990. He was already devoted to endurance sports and events such as the Iditarod and the Ironman triathlon.

During his career, he set more than 100 world records or world firsts. Among those was the longest nonstop flight in aviation history, 26,389 miles in 76 hours.

He made the first solo Pacific crossing in 1995 and then took six attempts to travel around the world, accomplishing the feat in 2002 after 14 days and 19 hours. He was elected to the U.S. National Aviation Hall of Fame and was awarded a medal from the International Aeronautics Federation. At the time of his disappearance, he was working toward an attempt to break the land-speed record in a jet-powered race car. The challenge was to take place in 2008 in the northern Nevada desert.

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Peggy.

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