THS grad soaring after record-breaking flight
K-State at Salina student gains experience in Mission Control
Nancy Milleret now knows what it's like to be a part of history.
The 2002 graduate of Tonganoxie High School served on "Mission Control" last week during Steve Fossett's record-breaking solo non-stop around-the-world flight.
Fossett flew the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer in a 67-hour flight that started and ended at Salina Municipal Airport. The plane is owned by English billionaire Richard Branson.
From 7:30 a.m. Feb. 28, until Fossett landed three days later, Milleret, and three other Kansas State University students, worked alternating eight-hour shifts at mission control.
"It's just been surreal," said Milleret, a junior at KSU's Salina campus where she's majoring in airway science. "It's just one of those things I'll never forget. Not only just his record, but I met a lot of really cool people. I spent 16 hours a day with people on mission control. We were all working on the same mission -- we got really close. It was a lot of fun."
Milleret wasn't the only one interested in Fossett's flight. The flight drew attention across the globe.
And, it drew attention at home -- especially in Salina, which has a population of about 45,000.
From babies to grandparents, thousands showed up last Thursday afternoon at Salina Municipal Airport to watch Fossett land the GlobalFlyer. Crowds came loaded with cameras, binoculars and some even brought food for tailgate parties. The atmosphere was celebratory and, yet, serious.
"This is history," said Margarete Harrison, who with her husband, Marvin, had parked their pickup next to the fence beside the runway for a bird's eye view.
Around 1 p.m., 49 minutes ahead of the GlobalFlyer's landing, the plane's owner, Richard Branson, walked from a hangar to a gathering ground between the two runways where media and dignitaries kept their eyes to the sky, waiting for the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer to arrive.
From the runway, Branson, a youthful looking blond-haired 54-year-old, greeted the crowd with a wave and a smile. Everyone seemed to know who the unassuming man was, including Margarete Harrison, who explained to her husband, "I saw his picture in the newspaper."
As the crowd waited, loudspeakers broadcast the local radio station, which gave minute-by-minute updates.
A disc jockey said when the first call came in saying Richard Branson wanted to use the Salina airfield for a round-the-world nonstop solo flight, whoever answered the phone thought it was a prank. But as it turned out, the caller was serious.
The retired Harrisons, who live in Salina, took the flight seriously as well.
They waited nearly three hours Feb. 28 to watch the GlobalFlyer take off into the sunset. The weather had been cold, but the Harrisons didn't complain.
"I'm saving the newspapers and routes and things to try to pass on to the kids and grandkids because I think we've been a part of history in watching this," Harrison said. "It's great that we're able to. Not everybody gets a shot like that. It's a one-of-a-kind thing -- kind of like Charles Lindbergh going across the Pacific making his solo flight. There's still dreamers out there and dreams to be fulfilled."
At the end, watching the plane land, as others in the crowd cheered, Margarete watched in silence, so moved that tears filled her eyes.
Milleret, who posed for a photo with Fossett, described him as "just a really great guy."
"While he was in Salina he would show his appreciation for what we were doing by taking us out for dinner, spending time with us, telling stories," Milleret said. "He's broken so many records all over the place, he's just great to listen to."
In 2002, Fossett made the first solo around-the-world flight in a hot-air balloon.
And, she met Branson, who also owns Virgin Atlantic Airways.
"He was a genuine guy," Milleret said. "He was really nice. ... At different evening events, he would walk right up to us and be eager to talk to us about our lives."
Milleret, the daughter of Mark and Melinda Milleret, Linwood, has wanted to be a pilot since she was a child. When she was 17 and still in high school, she earned her pilot's license. Now a KSU junior at Salina's college of technology and aviation, Milleret attends classes and teaches flying lessons. After graduation, she plans to be a commercial pilot, flying corporate jets.
Though she knows about flying in the United States, her work in mission control during Fossett's flight expanded her understanding about international travel.
"I live in the middle of Kansas and the middle of the United States," Milleret said. "Even though he (Fossett) didn't stop anywhere other than Salina, just in talking to the other pilots, I learned about international travel."
At mission control, Milleret, and others working there, plotted Fossett's flight.
"Using a couple of computer programs we were tracking him around the world," Milleret said, "checking his progress and his ground speed."
After it was determined that fuel had been lost during the flight, there was concern about whether Fossett could complete the trip.
"But it turned out it was a pretty good thing, because he lost that weight at the beginning of the flight, and so through the rest of the flight he was actually burning less fuel without the added weight," Milleret said. "In the end he made it home and it turned out to be OK. I don't think there was ever a point when I had any doubts that he was going to make it. I really thought he had it in control."
Like Margarete Harrison, the Salina resident who watched the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer take off and land, Milleret, too, was moved by the history-making flight -- and the attention it received.
When Fossett landed, she was outside, watching.
"It was an amazing sight," Milleret said. "Not just because of what he'd done, but there were so many people there. ... When I saw all those people supporting him, I realized that it was almost sad that it was over. And I knew that all these people I had met would be leaving, so it was kind of exciting and sad at the same time."