Rescuers Follow Leads for Missing Adventurer Steve Fossett
MINDEN, Nev – Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett's admirers were counting on his grit and experience Wednesday as rescuers searched for his small plane, missing for more than a day in the rugged mountains and sagebrush-filled desert of western Nevada.
Fossett's single-engine plane vanished Monday as he was scouting dry lake beds for an attempt to set a world land speed record.
"Steve is a tough old boot. I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now for someone to pick him up," said Sir Richard Branson, the U.K. billionaire who has helped finance many of Fossett's adventures. "Based on his track record, I feel confident we'll get some good news soon."
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Branson said early Wednesday that he hoped to hear some positive news soon.
The plane, a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, carried a locator that sends a satellite signal after a rough landing, but no such signal had been received.
An aerial search Tuesday that included 14 aircraft conducted grid searches over 7,500 square miles — an area larger than Connecticut — but intended to concentrate on 600 square miles when the search resumed Wednesday.
Fossett, the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, took off alone Monday morning from an airstrip at hotel magnate William Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno. A friend reported him missing when he didn't return.
It was not known what kind of survival gear, if any, Fossett might have had with him. He was planning just a short flight before returning to the private air strip.
Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan would not speculate about how many days someone might survive in the terrain, but she and longtime associates of the 63-year-old adventurer said he had proven survival skills.
"He's a very savvy and methodical and determined pilot. I'd give him the highest odds," she said.
Winds gusting up 40 mph on Tuesday kept the search planes from flying as low to the ground or as close to the 10,000-foot peaks as they would have liked, Ryan said.
One Civil Air Patrol pilot said turbulence was so bad that his aircraft dropped 1,500 feet in about three seconds. The downdrafts and gusts also provide a very real danger: They can come out of nowhere to push aircraft into the granite mountainsides if pilots aren't careful.
"It's provided a real bouncy ride for our searchers and that makes it really difficult to look at what's on the ground," Ryan said.
Forecasters said the winds would drop to about 10 mph on Wednesday in the county Fossett had targeted. Temperatures were in the high-40s overnight and were expected to be in the high 70s and low 80s on Wednesday.
Searchers have had little to go on because Fossett apparently did not file a flight plan, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.
"It is a very large haystack, and an airplane is a very small needle, no doubt about it," Ryan said at a news conference.
Nevada National Guard planes and helicopters in the rescue effort were equipped with infrared and other high-tech vision equipment, said Col. Craig Wroblewski, the Guard's director of operations. The aircraft worked into the night Tuesday, but there was no sign of the pilot or his plane.
"We just want to find him alive," Wroblewski said.
Fossett has an application pending before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a permit in Eureka County to attempt to break the land-speed record of 766.6 mph.
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.
It is among dozens of firsts claimed by Fossett in his life as an adventurer, which he embarked on after earning a fortune as a financial trader.
He set marks for speed or distance in balloons, airplanes, gliders, sailboats — even cross-country skis and an airship, according to his Web site. In March 2005, he became the first person to fly a plane solo around the world without refueling.
Fossett also has experience as an outdoorsman, climbing 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, participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996 and broke the round-the-world sailing record by six days in 2004.