Top stories of 2007: Steve Fossett missing | NevadaAppeal.com

Top stories of 2007: Steve Fossett missing

** FILE ** American adventurer Steve Fossett arrives at Kent International Airport, Manston, Kent, England. in this Feb. 11, 2006, photo.A small plane carrying aviation adventurer Steve Fossett has been missing since Monday night, federal officials said Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)

Editor’s note: This is one of the top stories the Nevada Appeal reported in 2007. Check Sunday’s paper for a list of the highlights in this year’s news.

By Andrew Pridgen

Appeal Staff Writer

September 3, 2007, will be a day to live in infamy for aviation.

The day one of its latter-day pioneers was taken.

Or, likely taken.

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Steve Fossett, 63, millionaire explorer, adventurer and daredevil (though he cleverly maintained his goal was never to defy odds at his own personal risk), flew a routine morning route – perhaps to scout salt flats for a pending go at a land-speed record – and never returned to Barron Hilton’s fabled Flying V Ranch near Yerington.

On Oct. 2, his wife of 38 years, Peggy, called off the search for her missing husband and his plane.

“As difficult as it is for me to reach this conclusion, I no longer hold out any hope that Steve has survived,” wrote Peggy in court documents filed with the Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois.

In November, she asked the court to declare him legally dead.

But that doesn’t mean the search is over, officials said this week.

“The search has not been called off, but suspended,” said Gary Derks, operations officer for the Division of Emergency Management for the State of Nevada.

“We’ve got private organizations that are going to be out there as soon as next week. There’s a lot of people out there still searching. Is the state putting people out there? No. But Mr. Fossett is not forgotten. It’s still an ongoing search and will continue to be an on-going search until he’s located.”

Fossett’s morning trip in his Bellanca Super Decathlon, a small two-person plane about the same size as a Cessna, was to fly for two to three hours and return for lunch at the ranch just outside Mason Valley.

He did not have a flight plan and was reportedly carrying a single bottle of water and no parachute.

“These (pilots) don’t need parachutes in these planes – don’t want ’em,” Derks said.

While it is not known whether the aircraft was carrying an electronic transponder or beacon, that a signal could be transmitted is unlikely after a bad crash, officials said.

“When an aircraft crashes with a lot of velocity, they do explode.” Derks said. “On the positive side, he was flying a very light aircraft and can glide for miles.”

The continued Fossett search may yield results sooner than later because of the technology used on the ground.

“The difference between this search and other people that have gone missing is the technology we’ve employed,” Derks said. “The infrared radar, the heat-seeking equipment, it’s just state-of-the-art, but to come up empty-handed is not a pretty thing.

According to a recent posting on stevefossett.com, technology still is playing an integral role in the search:

“While satellite generated images such as those from Google Earth (at a resolution up to 1 meter pixel size) are well able to see an intact aircraft (or large aircraft sections / elements), the members of the ranch-based search team are now looking to analyze much higher resolution images potentially revealing debris or a forced landing/crash site,” the site said.

However, Robert Keilholtz, a captain in the California Civil Air Patrol, who was involved in the search, said chances of finding Fossett’s missing plane are worse than locating a needle in a haystack.

Kim Toulouse of the Nevada Department of Wildlife characterized millions of acres of mountains and valleys where Fossett’s search was conducted an aviation graveyard.

But the privatized search for Fossett has two things going for it – technology and the legendary reputation of the pilot himself, which combine to create a “hopeful outlook” that he may be located in 2008, Derks said.

“We have (narrowed it down) over the last few months,” he said. “Sunrise Canyon is a good area to look; the area out by Walker Lake is also promising.

“He’s got an aircraft that has 400-mile radius capability, so it now becomes knowing the pilot, knowing the person – his habits. There’s nothing to indicate (his disappearance) was anything other than a crash. Of course, people have their theories.”

Conspiracy theorists have, of course, taken to Fossett’s disappearance. Area51.org addresses the pilot’s disappearance on its Web site:

“Rampant speculation culminated in Miles O’Brien suggesting that Fossett was shot down over Area 51 while on-air at CNN. While probably ridiculous, this rumor now has a life of its own and continues to spark wonder across the Internet,” the site reports. “So where the hell is Steve Fossett?”

The fringe theories don’t mesh with real-time tragedy.

“You know, we’ve sat around meetings with a bunch of people, they say he’s opened up some paths for aviation other people couldn’t do,” Derks said. “You’ve got to wonder how some of these experienced pilots end up crashing.”

• Contact reporter Andrew Pridgen at apridgen@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.