Teams search Nevada for plane carrying adventurer Steve Fossett | SierraSun.com
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Teams search Nevada for plane carrying adventurer Steve Fossett

MINDEN, Nev. (AP) ” Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who has cheated death time and again in his successful pursuit of aviation records, was missing Tuesday after taking off in a single-engine plane the day before, federal officials said.

Fossett, the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, took off at 8:45 a.m. Monday from a private airstrip on a ranch owned by hotelier Barron Hilton, authorities said. Associates said he was scouting locations for an upcoming attempt to break the land speed record in a car.

Fossett didn’t return as scheduled around noon, and a friend reported him missing on Monday night, said Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.



“The Civil Air Patrol is looking for him. One problem is he doesn’t appear to have filed a flight plan,” Gregor said.

Maj. Cynthia S. Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol said 13 aircraft were searching for Fossett in addition to numerous ground crews. The teams were doing “grid” searches over hundreds of square miles.



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.

“We’ve got moderate turbulence out there right now,” she 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 search was being coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., Gregor said. The Nevada Division of Emergency Management and the Nevada Highway Patrol were assisting.

Fossett, of Beaver Creek, Colo., took off alone from the airstrip at Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno in the south end of the Smith Valley, authorities said.

Conditions were “optimal” with calm to light winds no stronger than 10 mph, Ryan said.

“He had more than enough fuel on board so that should not have been an issue either,” she said.

A telephone message left for a Peggy Fossett in Beaver Creek was not immediately returned. Steve Fossett is married to the former Peggy Viehland of Richmond Heights, Mo.

John Kugler, a longtime friend who taught Fossett ballooning, described Hilton’s ranch as a place where aviation enthusiasts gather for weekends of good food and flying.

Kugler said Fossett is a careful, capable flyer and that his aircraft was a “safe plane.” He held out hope Fossett would be found alive.

“They’re going to find him on a mountainside,” Kugler said. “He’s going to be hungry and want some good food.”

Many of Fossett’s adventures have been financed by U.K. billionaire Sir Richard Branson. A Branson spokesman said Fossett was searching for dry and empty lake beds which might be suitable for an upcoming attempt to break the land speed record in a car.

“We understand that Steve Fossett was flying solo and he was carrying four full tanks of gas on board,” Paul Charles said.

Fossett currently has an application pending before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a permit to attempt the land-speed record on federal land in north-central Nevada’s Eureka County, more than 150 miles away, BLM officials said Tuesday.

Chris Worthington, a spokesman for the BLM in Battle Mountain, Nev., said he spoke with Fossett as recently as last week. He was unaware of any other sites Fossett may have been considering.

Ryan, of the Civil Air Patrol, described the plane as a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathalon with the tail number N-240R. FAA records show the registered owner is Flying M Hunting Club Inc. of Yerington, Nev. The agency certified it on Aug. 21, 1980.

Ryan said the two-seat tandem blue and white “tail dragger” with orange stripes and blue sunburst designs on top of the wings is capable of aerobatic maneuvers, and described it as “very durable.”

“A lot of people fly them around here,” Ryan said.

In 2002, Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon. In two weeks, his balloon flew 19,428.6 miles around the Southern Hemisphere. The record came after five previous attempts _ some of them spectacular and frightening failures.

Three years later, in March 2005, he became the first person to fly a plane solo around the world without refueling.

He and a co-pilot also claim to have set a world glider altitude record of 50,671 feet during a flight in August 2006 over the Andes Mountains.

Fossett, a Stanford University graduate with a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, came to Chicago to work in the securities business and ultimately founded his own firm, Marathon Securities.

The 63-year-old has climbed some of the world’s best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He also swam the English Channel in 1985, placed 47th in the Iditarod dog sled race in 1992 and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996.

In 1995, Fossett became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean in a balloon, landing in Leader, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Fossett was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July. He told a crowd gathered at the Dayton Convention Center in Ohio that he will continue flying.

“I’m hoping you didn’t give me this award because you think my career is complete, because I’m not done,” Fossett said.

Fossett had said he planned to go to Argentina in November in an effort to break a glider record.

“People see him as maybe a risk taker but he’s not,” Kugler said. “He’ll look at the odds, at what the risk is versus the rewards. He’s a planner. I just feel real confident it wasn’t anything he did if he’s down somewhere.”

___

Associated Press Writers Scott Sonner in Reno, John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco, Raphael G. Satter in London and Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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