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The Nation

Noted aviator missing

September 05, 2007|Stuart Silverstein, Dennis McLellan and Peter Pae | Times Staff Writers

Steve Fossett, a high-profile tycoon adventurer who has courted danger while setting world records in aviation and sailing, was missing Tuesday and the subject of an intense search a day after flying off in a single-engine plane from a Nevada airfield.

Federal, Nevada and California authorities, in aircraft and on the ground, focused on a rugged 600-square-mile expanse of mountains and high desert in their search for the wealthy businessman. Officials curtailed their efforts at nightfall, but said crews remained optimistic that Fossett might still be found alive.

"He is an adventurer, he has been in an awful lot of scrapes in his life and he probably has better chances than you and I of walking away from something that was potentially dangerous," said April Conway, a Nevada National Guard spokeswoman. She said that the effort remained a "search-and-rescue operation."

Fossett, 63 -- the first pilot to circle the globe nonstop, alone and without refueling -- took off on what was expected to be a short flight at 8:45 a.m. Monday, possibly to scout for a site where he could attempt a new land-speed record.

He flew from a private airfield on the Flying M Ranch, about 60 miles southeast of Carson City and near Yerington, Nev. He was the only one aboard.

The ranch and airfield are owned by aviation enthusiast William Barron Hilton, head of the hotel chain bearing the family name. Authorities said that when Fossett didn't return within a few hours, friends staying at the ranch briefly searched for him and contacted nearby airports, but within a few hours called authorities. Fossett's wife, Peggy, was reportedly staying at the ranch while the search was underway.

Federal and state search crews, numbering as many as 100 people, began their efforts late Monday, but failed to turn up strong leads then or Tuesday. Daytime temperatures in the area reached well into the 80s, and overnight lows were expected to dip to about 50 degrees.

"There's a lot of room in Nevada, and this fellow had four hours of fuel," said Daniel Burns, a regional manager with the Nevada Division of Emergency Management, which was helping coordinate the efforts. He said the hunt for Fossett and the small plane amounted to "searching for a very, very small item in a very, very large area. That's the challenge right now."

Fossett was flying a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon that was kept at the ranch. Though the small plane was designed for aerial acrobatics, authorities and other experts dismissed the notion that Fossett may have been making some risky maneuvers. Fossett doesn't have a reputation as a daredevil pilot, officials said, and he probably took the craft simply because it was available. A Decathlon "is about as safe and harmless as an airplane can be," said Peter Garrison, contributing editor of Flying Magazine and the writer of a monthly column on air accidents.

While expressing hope that Fossett landed safely and was awaiting rescue, Garrison said that if he suffered a fatal accident, "It would sort of be like a NASCAR driver getting killed while parking a [Toyota] Corolla or something."

Authorities said the plane had an emergency locater transmitter and possibly other communications equipment, but speculated that Fossett had not been able to send a signal because the gear's batteries had been run down or were damaged in the landing. Another complication for search crews was that Fossett didn't file a flight plan -- one wasn't required for his trip. Although winds were calm Monday when Fossett took off, they picked up Tuesday, providing stiff turbulence for search pilots exploring the area.

Still, rescuers pointed out that the dry lake beds and little-used roads within the vast, remote expanse being searched may have provided a spot where Fossett could have made an emergency landing.

A multimillionaire who became wealthy trading options in the Chicago commodities market, Fossett has set numerous world records in balloons, airplanes, sailboats, gliders and airships.

According to Fossett's website, which was taken down Tuesday, he was preparing to challenge the land-speed record next month. Fossett had begun testing a vehicle powered by a turbojet engine that could reach 800 mph, aiming to break the world record of 763 mph set in 1997.

Fossett's taste for adventure reportedly was spurred by the disappointment he felt after failing to make his school swim team when he was 11. He later swam the English Channel, raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competed in Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon, sailed solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and competed in Alaska's 1,150-mile Iditarod sled dog race.

In 2004, Fossett established an around-the-world sailing record: a 58-day voyage in a maxi-hull catamaran that knocked six days off the previous record. The same year, he and a partner flew a high-performance sailplane for nearly 16 hours in Argentina and set a new world free-distance flying record of 1,358 miles.

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