Fossett search focuses spotlight on Hilton ranch
September 6, 2007
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) ” The million-acre ranch owned by an heir of the Hilton hotel chain has gained notoriety this week as the launching pad for famed aviator Steve Fossett’s ill-fated flight into the Nevada desert.
Once used to entertain high-rolling gamblers from Hilton casinos in Las Vegas, the Flying M Ranch about 70 miles southeast of Reno has become a coveted getaway for aviators and astronauts.
They have use of a mile-long private airstrip and a stable of planes, free to indulge their passion over a desolate landscape that has clear skies nearly year round.
Barron Hilton, son of hotel mogul Conrad Hilton, is himself an avid pilot who has hosted aviators from around the world at his isolated spread.
Visitors have included singer John Denver, who was killed in 1997 while flying his plane off the California coast, astronauts Alan Shepard, Gene Cernan and Bill Anders, and annual winners of the Barron Hilton Cup, a major international soaring competition.
Family members also have stayed at the ranch over the years, including Hilton’s granddaughter, Paris. But spokesman Pat Barry said Paris Hilton “has not been there in some time.”
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Fossett had been staying there with his wife when he took off Monday morning to search for dry lake beds that could be used for his planned attempt to break the land speed record.
Bill Downey, a Nevada resident who was a guest at the ranch about 10 years ago, said he and his brother-in-law were invited to assemble an ultra-light aircraft for Hilton.
“It definitely was first-class,” he said Wednesday. “There was anything you wanted for food. We had steak and lobster. Inside the main house, it was very nice but rustic.”
He recalls a fleet of all-terrain vehicles and SUVs for guests to use, keys in the ignition.
Hilton, his lawyer and others played “a lot of cards” during the weekend Downey was there.
“We had a good time,” he said.
Hilton, 79, acquired the ranch in the mid-1960s with four partners and bought them out in 1972.
The Flying M, named for Hilton’s wife, Marilyn, consists mostly of leased federal land and encompasses an area about the size of Rhode Island. It starts 25 miles south of the small town of Yerington and stretches toward Mono Lake in California, with the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop to the west.
It includes a skeet-shooting range, horses for trail riding and miles of privacy along the East Fork of the Walker River, a renowned trout stream.
Anyone who arrives without a fishing rod or shotgun can borrow one.
In addition to the main house, where Hilton stays in one wing, the ranch includes a house dating to the mid-1800s that once was a stage stop and now serves as a dormitory and recreation room. Visitors have private cabins.
Meals for guests are prepared by professional chefs and served by waiters, but Barry said the food is “just ranch fare. It’s not pretentious at all.”
It has become Barron Hilton’s weekend retreat from his main residence in Southern California. Despite its many diversions, Barry said the ranch’s focus is on Hilton’s passion ” flying.
Hilton has thousands of hours of experience in gliders, balloons, helicopters and single- and multiengine aircraft.
Most of his guests today are fellow aviators, who can use about a dozen planes at the ranch. The aircraft include a mix of gliders and motorized planes, among them a 1941 Boeing Stearman biplane and a 1934 Beech Staggerwing.
Also among the planes was the single-engine Citabria Decathlon that Fossett took out for what was supposed to be a brief flight before he went missing.