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Fossett: Without a trace

Shannon Litz/Sun News ServiceThe Flying M Ranch where Steve Fossett took off from on Monday.
AP | The Record-Courier

GARDNERVILLE ” Officials have ramped up and expanded their search for missing adventure pilot Steve Fossett, adding a boat equipped with sonar to scan Walker Lake. The search will now include the eastern slope of the Sierra and the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, and additional aircraft from Las Vegas.

Maj. Cynthia Ryan, spokeswoman for the Civil Air Patrol, said officials are optimistic and those following the search should be patient.

“Barring a catastrophic landing, this accident is survivable,” Ryan said.



“The process works well. It’s saved a lot of lives and I have complete faith in it,” she said.

“I can’t guarantee we will have the right result, but I do guarantee results. We’re only four days into this search and we’re just scratching the surface.”



Nevada provides a special challenge because it’s the most mountainous state in the country. Shadows in canyons could hide the plane, making it necessary to repeat a search as the light shifts, Ryan said.

Lyon, Mineral and Douglas county sheriff’s offices are joining the effort, as are the Mono and Nevada county sheriff’s departments in California. Special resources are being devoted to the project because of Fossett’s stature, but the basic principles are devoted to every search, Ryan said.

A Civil Air Patrol Gippsland Air Van plane flew from Utah to join the effort. The plane is equipped with an Archer multi-spectral imaging system that should distinguish Fossett’s plane from background clutter. The system includes a screen behind cockpit for viewing.

“If we’re looking for a plane painted blue or red, it will show up on the screen as an anomaly,” said Kent Wright, of the Utah Civil Air Patrol.

Due to the speed of the aircraft and distance above the ground, the probability of finding a target drops to 60 percent on flat land and below 50 percent in mountainous terrain, Wright said.

“That’s why we cover the ground when the light is at different angles,” he said.

The system can detect just 10 percent of a target mass, Ryan said.

Fossett, 63, took off at 9 a.m. Monday from the Flying M Ranch near Wellington which is owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton.

He failed to return by noon and a formal search was initiated by 6 p.m. although friends began looking for the millionaire entrepreneur hours earlier.

Fossett was flying a Citabria Super Decathlon single-engine aircraft with the tail number N240R. The blue-and-white aircraft had orange stripes and blue sunburst designs on top of the wings.

Much is speculative, but Ryan said a resourceful individual could survive in the desert for about a week. Fossett had no known medical conditions and has a history of walking out of these situations on his own.

“If a person out there is injured, their time is reduced significantly,” she said. “But Fossett is an outdoorsman who knows how to take care of himself. We’ll keep searching until we find something, one way or the other.”

Fossett had no survival kit when he left on Labor Day morning from the Flying M Ranch in southern Lyon County. The Citabria Super Decathlon single-engine aircraft he was flying had a working emergency landing transmitter (ELT) designed to send out a radio signal if the aircraft crashes, but that technology is not foolproof, Ryan said.

“ELT’s have saved many lives,” she said. “But if the battery is low, the plane submerged or completely destroyed, there won’t be a signal.”

The aircraft belongs to the Flying M Hunting Club owned by Barron Hilton, who performed the prefllight on the plane and said it was in perfect working order, Ryan said.

Fossett holds numerous aviation world records in balloons, gliders, airships and powered aircraft. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in late 2006, after breaking the absolute nonstop distance record for any aircraft and absolute closed circuit distance record.

He established a new glider world altitude record and was added to the list of aviation legends in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Fossett’s attempts to make the absolute land speed record are slated for the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The current record of 763 mph was set in 1997 by Britain’s Andy Green.

Information from the Steve Fossett Challenges Web site.


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