Undersea probe tied to Fossett, Nevada | NevadaAppeal.com

Undersea probe tied to Fossett, Nevada

The catamaran “Cheyenne,” the “mother ship” of a submarine that will probe the world’s deepest ocean trenches, is moored off the coast of Orange County in Southern California.
PHOTO BY DAVE T. HENLEY |

I will always remember that hot, late-summer day nearly seven-and-a-half years ago when billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett and his single-engine aircraft went missing over Northwest Nevada.

It was Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007, and I had covered Fallon’s annual downtown pancake breakfast and parade, had written my stories and photo captions at our newspaper office and driven to the county fairgrounds to take in the tail end of the rodeo.

It was not until late evening that day when I learned on the Reno TV news that Fossett, the renowned airplane, balloon and glider pilot, sailor and mountain climber who was piloting his blue-and-white Bellanca, had disappeared after taking off from the private airstrip on hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch at Smith Valley south of Yerington.

Because Fossett, 63, had filed no flight plan and had told no one of his destination, ground and air rescue crews, the latter led by the Nevada Wing of the Civil Air Patrol headquartered at the Minden Airport, had no inkling as where to conduct their search.

Countless thousands of square miles were searched in Nevada, California and other western states, but to no avail. The search was called off in mid-October, and in February of that year, Fossett’s wife, Peggy, had him declared legally dead.

On Sept. 29, 2008, a hiker discovered three of Fossett’s ID cards and $1,005 in cash on a ledge of a 10,000-foot peak in the Ritter Mountains in northeastern California about 65 miles south of his Nevada take-off site, and the plane’s wreckage was soon found nearby. The following month, human bones were located near the wreckage and DNA testing confirmed they were Fossett’s.

Fossett, whose legacy included being the first person to fly solo around the world in a hot air balloon, also left his mark when he won national and international speed records in his 125-foot catamaran “Cheyenne,” which he had purchased in 1999 and homeported in the San Francisco Bay area.

After Fossett’s death, his estate sold the Cheyenne to California millionaire Chris Welsh, who today in making plans to use the Cheynne as the “mother ship” of a small submarine, which is attached to the catamaran by a large onboard crane, to plumb the depths of the world’s deepest ocean trenches.

Welsh, a 51-year-old entrepreneur who stands at 6-feet, 3 inches, has homes in San Francisco and Southern California, and I recently caught up with him at his headquarters in Orange County where the Cheyenne is moored in Newport Bay.

Welsh, whose Virgin Atlantic Expedition is partially financed by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, told me that his most demanding adventure will be to explore the floor of the 35,755-foot Challenger Deep that lies in the Pacific Ocean south of the Mariana Trenchwhich lies off the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas Islands near Guam, also an American territory.

Welsh, a noted sailor, the winner of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in Australia and an accomplished helicopter, glider and seaplane pilot, said his one-man submarine, which resembles a small jet fighter aircraft, will be able to explore the ocean’s depths much deeper than subs that have attempted this feat in the past.

This is because his submarine is being fitted out with a special quartz dome capable of withstanding 13 million pounds of pressure. As well, his craft will be able to navigate on its own as it will not be attached to its mother ship with a cable, as has been the case during several previous explorations. His sub also will have a wider underwater range and will be able to stay submerged much longer, he added.

Welsh hopes his project will discover new plant and fish life on the ocean floor. The project also has important military implications, he said. For example, it would be able to detect potential hostile nations’ underwater sensing devices that can locate ship movements and hidden torpedoes, armed robotic vehicles and other weapons capable of being activated by radio signals.

Exploring the depths of the worlds’ deepest oceans is mankind’s next giant leap, and Steve Fossett’s former catamaran Cheyenne and its submarine will lead the way, Welsh predicts, in accomplishing this “giant leap.”

Capt. Nemo and his giant submarine “Nautilus,” portrayed in Jules Verne’s 1870 fictional epic “Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea,” also conducted explorations off the Marianas Trench in the Pacific, and now it is Chris Welsh’s turn.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com.