Nevada search for Steve Fossett cut back |

Nevada search for Steve Fossett cut back

Associated Press Writer
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

MINDEN, Nev. (AP) ” The Nevada-based search for Steve Fossett was cut back on Monday, but those still involved in the hunt for the missing aviator and adventurer said they remain optimistic about finding him alive.

The Civil Air Patrol, which had 20 planes and 60 searchers aloft over the weekend, suspended further flights and left two planes and a small team on standby at the airport here.

The National Guard kept five helicopters on search duty ” and many private aircraft continue to operate out of hotel mogul Barron Hilton’s 1 million-acre Flying M Ranch, where Fossett had been staying. Search and rescue crews on the ground also continued their efforts.

“We’re going to remain hopeful,” said Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen, speaking for the state Department of Public Safety. “I guess the best possible scenario we can think about today is that he’s sitting next to his plane somewhere in Nevada that no one has checked yet, and that he’s alive.”

“It’s only going to take that one set of eyes to come forward and say, ‘We know where he’s at.’ That’s the day we’re all hoping for,” Allen said.

Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada CAP said volunteer CAP pilots in up to 28 planes made 245 flights searching for Fossett, a millionaire who has sailed and flown around the world and has set more than 100 aviation and distance records.

Regarding the CAP flight suspensions, she added, “We don’t like to do that. It’s against our nature to walk away from a search. But at some point you have diminishing returns.”

Maj. Ed Locke of the Nevada Air National Guard said the guard’s helicopters will continue flying and will be able to hover close to the ground, in contrast to the CAP planes which flew at about 1,000 feet above the ground.

But Locke also said tips from people, including those from Web surfers using Google Earth Satellite photos, have dropped off from hundreds following Fossett’s disappearance on Labor Day to about two dozen a day ” and of those two dozen most duplicate one another.

Lyon County Sheriff Allen Veil, whose county takes in Hilton’s sprawling ranch, said he’s observed the private search effort at the ranch and has seen “a sense of optimism that Mr. Fossett is still out there alive, and they’re set on finding him.”

A key reason for that optimism is that Fossett has proven survival skills. He 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.

But the sheriff also said it’s possible that the organized search for Fossett, 63, might turn up nothing and some hiker or hunter eventually will come across the wreckage of Fossett’s single-engine plane.

With the search starting its third week in a rugged, remote area on the edge of the Sierra in northern Nevada and eastern California, comparisons are being made to the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean 70 years ago.

Ric Gillespie, leader of an effort this summer to find Earhart, who vanished in July 1937 during an around-the-world flight attempt, said that as the search for Fossett continues the parallels to the hunt for Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, will increase.

“We like to think that anything is findable with enough resources. But it could turn into another Amelia Earhart situation,” Gillespie said Sunday in a telephone interview. “If they don’t find something, the mystery element will grow and grow.”

“Steve Fossett already is famous enough. But if it turns into a mysterious flight into oblivion, he will be more famous than he already is,” added Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. “A legend always is more memorable than a personality.”

The 20,000-square-mile search area extends to near the location of a World War II military crash that wasn’t pinpointed until 2005, when climbers spotted the ice-entombed body of Leo Mustonen at the wreck site in Kings Canyon National Park. A second body was found at that high Sierra site last month, but has not yet been identified.

Searchers have spotted a half-dozen uncharted crash sites that, once they’re investigated, might bring some solace to families of fliers who disappeared decades ago. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, about 15 to 20 private planes have vanished in the area since 1950.

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