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Search area widens for aviator Fossett

Its 10,000 square miles take in Walker Lake and the Black Rock Desert.

September 07, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

MINDEN, NEV. — Authorities expanded their search Thursday for missing aviator Steve Fossett to a broad swath stretching along the rugged eastern Sierra, including Nevada's sun-scorched Black Rock Desert and the expansive depths of Walker Lake.

Fossett disappeared Monday after taking what he had said would be a short morning flight. After three full days of searching, officials remained hopeful that the 63-year-old aviation pioneer could still be found alive.

But they admitted that the hunt -- now stretching across 10,000 square miles of inhospitable terrain that includes granite-rimmed Sierra canyons and sagebrush-flecked desert -- could take weeks.

"Trying to make that needle stand out in a haystack that big is going to be a real challenge," said Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol's Nevada wing. "It's going to be frustrating for a lot of people who were hoping for results early on."

During the first days, authorities keyed in on a 600-square-mile stretch from Bishop, Calif. to the private airfield near Yerington, Nev., where Fossett took off Monday morning.

Repeated passes over that area at different hours, however, convinced authorities that Fossett was probably elsewhere. Fossett -- whose single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon carried enough fuel to fly four or five hours -- could have flown in any direction, Ryan said.

Authorities are still following four "credible leads," Ryan said, but they are scattered over a wide area "and that's why they're not locking together as pieces of the puzzle."

Three sheriff's airplanes from Washoe County joined the hunt Thursday, searching the mountains ringing the Black Rock Desert north of Reno. The vast dry lake bed is famous as a site for record-breaking rocket-car runs and the annual Burning Man festival.

One of the planes spotted wreckage Wednesday, but it was an old crash site, not Fossett's aircraft.

Authorities also sent a boat armed with sonar onto Walker Lake, east of where Fossett took off. Attempts to find an oil slick on the lake a day after Fossett disappeared were thwarted by high winds that whipped up the waters.

Fossett's plane carried an emergency satellite locater designed to activate in a crash, but the device does not work underwater. Fossett is also believed to have been wearing a special wristwatch that can send a signal up to 90 miles, but no alert has been detected.

Ryan said such devices were not foolproof and could be foiled by technical glitches or if Fossett was forced down into such terrain as a narrow canyon.

She said that it was very typical for searches to take up to two weeks, and that no one was giving up hope that Fossett could be found alive. But some planes simply vanish and aren't found for months or even years, if ever, she cautioned: "Quite frankly, it does happen."

Celebrated for an array of aerial accomplishments that include becoming the first to circle the globe solo in a balloon, Fossett had been a guest last week at hotel tycoon William Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno.

He told friends he wanted to search for dry lake beds suitable for his latest assault on the record books, a planned attempt to break the land-speed record in a jet car.

After he didn't return by noon Monday, worried acquaintances began their own search that afternoon and alerted authorities, who had mounted a full-scale hunt by Tuesday.

At times, nearly two dozen aircraft have scoured the countryside, including military helicopters that have flown through the night with infrared gear, two National Guard C-130s flying around the clock and a Civil Air Patrol plane outfitted with a high-tech imaging system that can pick select objects -- such as a downed plane -- out of the blurry backdrop of granite and pines and desert.

The plane carrying Fossett was one of the aircraft Hilton keeps at the ranch for guests. Capable of aerobatic maneuvers, it is able to fly at lower speeds than many aircraft and set down on a relatively short stretch of ground.

Authorities said Hilton's staff had carefully maintained the plane. One Nevada emergency services official said initially that Fossett had carried along food and water, but authorities later said it was highly unlikely he had such supplies onboard for what was supposed to be a short flight.

Despite the odds, a hard landing "is entirely survivable," Ryan said.

"We're all remaining very hopeful and very positive with this search," said Trooper Chuck Allen of the Nevada Department of Public Safety.

Fossett's wife, Peggy, had been at the ranch with him and remained there awaiting word, according to his associates.

"We're concerned, waiting to see," said Brian Spaeth, a spokesman for Steve Fossett Challenges in Chicago. "If anyone can overcome something like this, it's him, as long as he got the plane down somehow."

A millionaire financial trader long before he began capturing headlines as an adventurer, Fossett has set 116 records in sailing, ballooning, gliding, dirigibles and powered aircraft.

In 2002, Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon after failing spectacularly in five earlier attempts. He followed up that feat in 2005 by circling the globe solo in a jet without refueling. Fossett was inducted this summer into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Ron Kaplan, the hall's executive director, said Fossett had a long track record of careful planning for his feats -- and of surviving close scrapes.

"He may be roasting rattlesnakes and drinking liquid out of a cactus for all we know," Kaplan said.

"He, above all people, knows how to survive."

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