Winter Forces Suspension of Search for Missing Aviator Steve Fossett

With winter closing in, efforts to find aviator Steve Fossett have dwindled — along with hopes that his proven ability to cheat death enabled him to survive a plane crash in the rugged desert of northern Nevada.

More than a month after he left for a short flight, no one has found any trace of him, and authorities have suspended the search, although some private efforts financed by Fossett's friends and family continue.

"My gut feeling is that he didn't survive the impact. It's so unlikely," said Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol. She said if Fossett were alive but too injured to walk, he would have tried to signal searchers in some manner.

"He's not the kind of guy to just sit and wait for help to show up," Ryan added.

Lyon County Sheriff Allen Veil said Fossett's disappearance remains under investigation as a missing-person case, and authorities are not prepared to presume the aviator is dead.

"We will try to come to a conclusion, but we're not there yet," Veil said.

Fossett, 63, had previously survived a nearly 30,000-foot plunge in a crippled balloon, a dangerous swim through the frigid English Channel and hours stranded in shark-infested seas.

Fossett, who made millions as a commodities broker in Chicago, also completed the Iditarod sled-dog race, scaled some of the world's best-known peaks, sailed and flew around the world, and set more than 100 aviation and distance records.

Fossett's friends are still looking for him, flying out of hotel mogul Barron Hilton's sprawling ranch, about 80 miles southeast of Reno. That's where Fossett and his wife had been staying on Sept. 3, when he took off alone to scout possible locations for an attempt to break a land speed record in a rocket-propelled car. The cost of the private search has not been disclosed.

"Only because of Steve's character do we hold out hope," Hilton spokesman Pat Barry said.

At one point, more than 40 CAP, military and private planes and helicopters were aloft over an area that covered 20,000 square miles, and scores of searchers went on foot into deep, brushy canyons looking for Fossett.

Now, there's just one helicopter based at Hilton's ranch, along with a plane carrying high-tech cameras that photograph potential wreck sites for later analysis.

Barry and Fossett spokesman Brian Spaeth said the wealthy adventurer's family isn't making any public comment. "Not until we find him," Barry said.

Gary Derks, the state Department of Public Safety official in charge of the search, said efforts have been suspended until "additional credible leads become known."

"I have so many mixed feelings over this thing. My gut feeling tells me I want him to be alive. Sometimes realism says maybe he's not," he said.

Derks said costs to various government agencies involved in the hunt now total nearly $1.4 million.

With snow already falling in higher elevations, there's not much time left for searching. A big storm could blanket Fossett's single-engine plane with snow, making it undetectable until spring.

"Everything's going to shut down until spring," said Bill Ogle, whose father disappeared on a flight over Nevada in 1964. "I know that country, and you don't want to mess around up there in the wintertime."

Ogle, 47, of Gainesville, Fla., hoped at first that the Fossett search may lead to some sign of his father's plane. Several old crash sites were spotted in the past month, although a review determined that only one wasn't listed in federal records. Searchers will try to identify it later.

"I'm actually pessimistic at this point, and I know it's difficult for them to get into these wrecks, especially with the winter coming," he said. "I'm anticipating that it will be awhile before we hear anything."

Other tips may come from Web surfers using Google Earth satellite photos, although the CAP's Maj. Ryan said those leads have dropped off from hundreds following Fossett's disappearance to "practically zero."

The sheriff also said that with hunting seasons opening or about to open within the search zone, hunters may provide the next clues. He also noted prospectors have many small mines in the area.

"If he's going to be found, that's probably who's going to find him — someone out hunting or prospecting in the hills," Veil said.