Extensive search underway for adventurer Steve Fossett | PostIndependent.com

Extensive search underway for adventurer Steve Fossett

Associated Press Writer
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

RENO, Nev. – 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 to scout locations for a land-speed record, federal officials said.

Teams searched a broad swath of rugged terrain in western Nevada near the ranch where he took off, but searchers had little to go on because he apparently didn’t file a flight plan, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said.

“They are working on some leads, but they don’t know where he is right now,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Fossett, the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, was seeking places for an upcoming attempt to break the land speed record in a car, said Paul Charles, a spokesman for Sir Richard Branson, the U.K. billionaire who has financed many of Fossett’s adventures.

The 63-year-old took off alone at 8:45 a.m. Monday from an airstrip at hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno.

A friend reported him missing when he didn’t return, authorities said.

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

“We are committing maximum resources to this effort,” she said. “As far as we know now, it is still a rescue mission.”

Gusty winds were hampering the search, Ryan said. “If they get too bad we could have to suspend air search operations,” she said.

Said Charles: “We understand that Steve Fossett was flying solo and he was carrying four full tanks of gas on board. He was searching for dry and empty lake beds which might be suitable for his plan to break the land speed record.”

Ryan described the plane as a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathalon, blue and white with orange stripes and blue sunburst designs on the wings. The two-seat tandem “tail dragger” is capable of aerobatic maneuvers, Ryan said.

FAA records show the registered owner is Flying M Hunting Club Inc. of Yerington, Nev. The agency certified it Aug. 21, 1980.

A telephone message left for a Peggy Fossett in Beaver Creek, Colo., where Steve Fossett lives, was not immediately returned.

Fossett and his wife, Peggy, have a home on Elk Track Court in Beaver Creek, on the same street as the former home of Gerald and Betty Ford.

The adventurer has been involved in philanthropic efforts in the Vail Valley for years as a supporter of the Vail Valley Foundation, the Vilar Center and the Youth Foundation.

Fossett has also skied as a celebrity participant in the American Ski Classic.

He was in Beaver Creek throughout this summer, friends said, and was in town as recently as last Tuesday.

“He’s just a good person who cares about Beaver Creek and the Vail Valley,” said Harry Frampton, a Vail resident and chairman of the Vail Valley Foundation, who has known Fossett for years.

Fossett would never brag about his adventures, but would be willing to talk about them, Frampton said.

“He would always have just finished some incredible adventure,” Frampton said. “I’d ask him, ‘What’s next?’ and he’s always have another one.”

When Frampton saw Fossett at the 10th anniversary party for the Youth Foundation earlier this summer, Fossett talked about his latest quest: breaking the land speed record at Bonneville Flats.

Fossett was in Sparks, Nev., preparing for that attempt, according to the Record-Courier newspaper.

Fossett was very committed to starting the Youth Foundation, said Chupa Nelson, a local businessman who worked with Fossett through the foundation.

“He cares about people, he cares about kids,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he would always have brief conversations with Fossett about his exploits.

“Steve is Steve,” Nelson said. “He is a very interesting guy and a very confident person that loves adventure. An adrenaline junkie.

“He’s survived a lot of other things, and hopefully he’ll survive this.”

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.

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 that Fossett is a careful, capable flyer and that his aircraft a “safe plane,” and 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.”

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, went to Chicago to work in the securities business and ultimately founded his own firm, Marathon Securities.

Fossett has climbed some of the world’s tallest 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 would 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 said he planned to go to Argentina in November in an effort to break a glider record.

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