Hopes plunge at air show; Premier Nevada event closes in sadness over missing Fossett, deaths in aerial performances

For two weeks, aviation has seemed nearly cursed in this rugged state known for stunning but treacherous flying.

Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett -- the one-time Chicago businessman who has set some of aviation's most famous records -- has been missing since he took off on what was supposed to be a short flight over the desert on Sept. 3.

Searchers have discovered at least six other crash sites, rusted wrecks where less-renowned pilots met lonely deaths and were never recovered.

And at the Reno Air Show, a premier flying competition held here for four decades, three crashes in four days claimed the lives of three pilots, horrified spectators and left a pall over the event as it ended on Sunday.

"The fact that Steve is missing was hanging over all of us as we arrived here," said Ron Kaplan, executive director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. "I think a lot of us arrived with the hope that they'd find him and this event would turn into a big reunion, but ... there have been even more deaths."

Over the weekend, search officials conceded that they would have to evaluate how long to proceed with the massive and exhausting search for Fossett. Officials with the Civil Air Patrol, Nevada National Guard and state emergency management are to meet Monday to discuss their options.

Officials discounted claims by people who believed they had found the Fossett crash site by searching satellite imagery on Internet services such as Google Earth. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over the search area after an amateur pilot was caught flying through the area in hopes of securing a cash reward if he found Fossett.

Fossett, a pilot, balloonist and sailor, holds more than 100 world records. At 63, he is perhaps best-known for the first solo balloon flight around the world. He succeeded in 2002 after five attempts, including a crash landing in a remote India village and a plunge of 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea after his balloon was shredded in severe weather.

Because he has defied death so famously, at least some of the searchers kept faith that Fossett might still be alive.

"If anyone can pull it off, he can," said Nevada Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan.

At the air show in Reno, where spectators had watched three pilots die, there was little optimism left.

"I just can't think of a scenario where he is alive where he couldn't signal for help," said pilot Lynn Krogh.

Kaplan, the hall of fame director, had early in the five-day show been wearing a shirt with the logo GlobalFlyer, the plane in which Fossett became the first solo person to circumnavigate the world without stopping or refueling. But by the weekend, Kaplan was in a gray polo shirt, no longer as hopeful.

One sponsor of planes participating in the air show was Barron Hilton, the hotel magnate. It was Hilton's Flying M Ranch, some 80 miles southeast of Reno, where Fossett had taken off on Labor Day morning. He had been scouting for a dry lake bed for the next record he hoped to set: the land speed record in a car he had custom-built with an engine that had once powered an Air Force jet.

As the air show wound down Sunday, spectators were asked to remember the pilots who died there last week.

Steve Dari of Lemon Grove, Calif., was killed when his biplane stalled shortly after takeoff during a practice run Tuesday. Brad Morehouse of Afton, Wyo., was killed when his jet crashed in a race Thursday afternoon. And five-time race defending champion Gary Hubler, 51, of Caldwell, Idaho, was killed when his plane collided with another on Friday, marking the 18th fatality in the 44-year history of the air races and prompting the suspension of competition for the day. The pilot of the plane Hubler collided with was injured, as were two race judges on the ground.

Fossett had been scheduled to present a trophy to the aviator show spectators voted had best restored a vintage plane. Instead, the award was presented by other aviation legends, including Fossett's close friend Dick Rutan, whose round-the-world flight record Fossett broke in 2005.