The biggest 2008 search for Steve Fossett ended today with team members packing up their gear and leaving a rugged mountain area without finding any sign of the famed aviator-adventurer, missing since Sept. 3, 2007.
"While we're disappointed, we're glad we tried. It's the least we can do," said Robert Hyman, who organized the 28-member, self-funded search team that had been looking for Fossett since Aug. 23. The team focused on several brush- and tree-choked canyons in the Wassuk Range about 130 miles south of Reno.
"I feel good about the effort," Hyman said. "We did an exhaustive search and nobody got sick or was injured. We hope that any future search will be able to use the work we did as a steppingstone."
The worst problems encountered by team members were several flat tires on vehicles used to reach their camp via dirt roads crossing over Lucky Boy Pass in the Wassuks.
Asked whether he'd try again in 2009 to find Fossett, Hyman said, "It's too early to say, but I would like to. Our team was excited about this and they want to do more."
Detailed information on the areas searched will be turned over to local authorities, who helped the team with data that had been amassed in an extensive hunt launched last year after Fossett disappeared while on a pleasure flight in a borrowed plane.
Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford, whose agency has an open investigation into the case, said he wasn't surprised that Hyman's team didn't find Fossett given the harsh terrain "but I was kind of hoping that they might."
Sanford praised the team for its efforts, saying, "That's what it's going to take " someone just running across the back country." He said the search details will help in narrowing the areas that still must be checked, adding, "We welcome anything we can get."
Hyman said team members found bits of broken glass, bottles, cans and car fenders early on. They also found a scrap of blue cloth, although it seemed too thin to have been from the fabric-covered aluminum frame of Fosset's plane.
As searchers got into more remote areas, Hyman said they found no signs of human activity, only tracks of bear, deer, mountain lions and other wildlife.
Fossett, 63, had been staying at hotel magnate Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, near the search zone, when he disappeared while flying Hilton's single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon. He was last seen flying less than 100 feet above the ground not far from the ranch, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
The search area, dominated by towering 11,239-foot Mount Grant, was flown over repeatedly last fall in what was described as the largest aerial search for a downed plane in U.S. history. An extensive ground search also was made in 2007.
But Hyman and fellow search team leaders Lew Toulmin and Bob Atwater have said there was still a lot of land that didn't get close scrutiny. All three are members of the New York-based Explorers Club, as was Fossett.
Fossett was declared legally dead in February by a Chicago judge. The multimillionaire's widow, Peggy Fossett, issued a statement in support of the latest effort, one of three private, self-funded searches this year. She spent $1 million on last year's hunt. That's in addition to more than $1.6 million in Nevada government agency costs.
Hyman said he also got word from Hilton thanking the search team for its efforts.
The hunt by Hyman's team was the largest since last year's massive efforts. Earlier this summer, a team headed by Canadian geologist and adventure racer Simon Donato spent a week looking for him.
A smaller search still is being conducted by Mike Larson and Kelly Stephenson of Carson City. They have been riding ATVs and hiking on foot southwest of Hawthorne for several months on days off from work.
Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
On the Net:
The Explorers Club: http://www.explorers.org/
Steve Fossett Challenges: http://www.stevefossett.com