Disappearance of Fossett mystifies; Hope dwindles as search continues

Steve Fossett took on risks as big as anybody -- circling the globe non-stop by hot-air balloon, sailing solo across oceans -- and as small, by comparison, as swimming the English Channel and climbing the Matterhorn.

But the 63-year-old adventurer, missing since Sept. 3, wouldn't have set aviation records and made a fortune trading commodities by taking foolish risks, veteran pilots say. He was a consummate flier used to surviving extreme conditions.

"That's what makes this so puzzling," says Maj. Bill Schroeder of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, who has been flying a search plane daily. "Because he was so very experienced."

The facts of the Fossett mystery don't inspire optimism as the search -- likely the biggest ever for a wreck in the Sierra Nevada, the air patrol says -- approaches two weeks.

Fossett vanished on a calm day. His plane had an emergency beacon and he wore a wristwatch he could use to signal his location. He took off under sunny desert skies from Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch in western Nevada for a routine three-hour flight. He reportedly intended to scout a location for his bid to set a world land-speed record in a jet car.

Internet tips generated from satellite photos, aided by Google Earth and Amazon technology, have poured into search headquarters in Minden, Nev., from admirers across the USA.

Dozens of volunteer pilots have scoured a desolate area twice as big as New Jersey, some in planes with heat-seeking infrared gear. They've found seven previously unrecorded plane wrecks but no trace of Fossett's single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon.

On Thursday, searchers flew several "areas of high probability," says the air patrol's Maj. Cynthia Ryan, including Sonora Pass, south of Coleville, Calif. A Labor Day camper, who came forward recently, reported hearing a low-flying plane and then an explosion.

If Fossett could walk, he should have reached a road by now or run into a sheepherder, a cowboy or an all-terrain vehicle, survival experts say. He could have lasted until now without food but not without water in some of the West's driest, most inhospitable landscape.

"I don't think it's likely he can walk to safety. He would have done so by now," says Steve Tabor, president of Desert Survivors, a conservation group based in Oakland. "If he's injured and has to crawl on hands and knees, it would be very unlikely it would be near water."

Others still have hope. "With an avid survivalist like him, it would be pretty premature to call it a recovery effort at this point," says Chuck Allen, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Public Safety.

The search will continue until Fossett is found or the volunteer pilots run out of leads, Schroeder says. The 17,000-square-mile search area's mountain and desert terrain is so rugged that one pass in a plane is rarely enough.

"You can fly past a target in one direction and spot it coming back because of the sun or the position of the aircraft in relation to the ground," Schroeder says. He recalls that a search a year ago for a plane that crashed en route from Nevada to Northern California took four weeks.

"It's just a matter of going back again and searching and re-searching," he says.

The Sierra has "some of the most treacherous winds in the country," Ryan says. Fierce downdrafts roaring down mountain slopes can cause planes to plunge. In thin air at 10,000 feet, small planes have about half the horsepower as at sea level, and a pilot can fail to climb above a ridge.

"He could have gotten into a downdraft. There's a possibility there was terrain he couldn't clear," Schroeder says. "The aircraft could have had a problem."

About 25 planes -- each with a pilot and two others on board to scan the ground -- have been searching every day, typically flying two sorties, Ryan says.

Wildfires in California have made it harder to see. "You have haze and the terrain almost looks like a moonscape," Schroeder says.

Fossett's plane, like an estimated 150-200 that lie undiscovered in the vastness of the Sierra, may never be found, Ryan says. Pilots who have located old crash sites in their search for Fossett have stirred false anticipation.

"It's been a roller coaster in the emergency operations center," Ryan says. "When they call in and think they've found him, everyone gets really excited. Then when we find out it's a previously unrecorded wreck, everything kind of goes down to zero again."

Dozens of Internet tips from satellite photos have not been helpful so far. "You've got a lot of armchair searchers out there who really have no idea what a crash site looks like," Ryan says.

Fossett didn't file a flight plan before taking off from the airstrip at the Flying M, a million-acre ranch 70 miles southeast of Reno. Owner Hilton -- Paris Hilton's grandfather -- provides a luxury getaway for aviators and astronauts, a crowd among whom Fossett, holder of at least six world aviation and sailing records, was a star. It hasn't been reported whether Fossett had food and water on board.

Salvation Army workers at an operations camp in Minden say they feel a darker mood among searchers. "You can tell everybody is sort of starting to sense something ominous coming," volunteer Wayne Church says. "I mean, he's been out there a long time."

Contributing: Matt Farley, Reno Gazette-Journal

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