Aviation adventurer missing
MINDEN – Steve Fossett doesn’t give up easily. It took him four tries to swim across the English Channel, and six to fulfill his dream of becoming the first person to fly around the world solo in a hot-air balloon.
His friends pointed to that persistence as a reason for optimism Tuesday, as searchers in aircraft covered broad swaths of western Nevada searching for the adventurer and his plane, last seen Monday morning.
“Steve is a tough old boot,” said Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire who has helped finance many of Fossett’s adventures. “I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now for someone to pick him up.”
Branson said in a statement that Fossett had been scouting for a suitable dry lake bed to make an attempt at breaking the land speed record. That would add the list of dozens of marks Fossett claims for speed or distance in balloons, airplanes, gliders, sailboats – even cross-country skis and an airship.
Fossett has survived a number of close calls, including a 29,000-foot plunge into the Coral Sea after his balloon ripped during a storm in 1998. He was eventually rescued by a schooner.
The 63-year-old took off alone at 8:45 a.m. Monday from an airstrip at hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno. A friend reported him missing when he didn’t return, authorities said.
Searchers had little to go on because he apparently didn’t file a flight plan. “They are working on some leads, but they don’t know where he is right now,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Fourteen aircraft were searching for Fossett in addition to ground crews, said Maj. Cynthia S. Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. The teams were conducting grid searches over 7,500 square miles – an area larger than Connecticut – but were concentrating on an area of 600 square miles.
“It is a very large haystack, and an airplane is a very small needle, no doubt about it,” Ryan said at a news conference.
The search was suspended Tuesday evening and was to resume Wednesday morning. There had been no sign of Fossett’s plane, Ryan said.
The search area is varied, ranging from high desert terrain with dry lake beds and sage brush, but also some rugged mountain peaks, she said. Gusty winds were hampering the search and could end up suspending the air search effort, Ryan said.
Ryan said it is not uncommon when flying out of a remote, private airstrip to do so without filing a flight plan. She said Fossett had “full radio capability” but did not make radio contact with anyone at the ranch after his takeoff.
The plane Fossett was in carried a locator that sends a satellite signal after a rough landing, but no such signal had been received.
Fossett was flying solo and had filled the plane’s two gas tanks, Branson said.
“The ranch he took off from covers a huge area, and Steve has had far tougher challenges to overcome in the past.”