Second day yields no sign of Fossett

The hunt for aviator Steve Fossett ended its second full day Wednesday with searchers continuing to express hope that the missing pilot could be found alive, buoyed by reports of possible sightings of his plane along the rugged eastern Sierra.

More than 650 rescuers on the ground and in the air continued the painstaking search for the 63-year-old adventurer and his blue-and-white single-engine aircraft over a vast swath of craggy desert and forested mountains straddling Nevada and California.

At midday, rescue crews thought they spotted Fossett's plane in the undulating high desert east of Lee Vining, Calif. "We thought we had it nailed," said Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol's Nevada wing.

But a helicopter crewman lowered to the ground discovered the wreckage was that of a plane that probably crashed decades before.

Fossett, whose aerial feats include becoming the first man to circle the globe solo in a balloon, took off Monday morning from an airstrip at hotel magnate William Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno. It was to be a short flight to scout for dry lake beds suitable for his planned attempt to break the land-speed record in a jet car.

When he didn't return that day, a hunt was launched that grew to include federal and state authorities from California and Nevada. At times, more than a dozen planes and helicopters were aloft, including a Black Hawk chopper from a nearby military base.

Heavy turbulence and gusts reaching 40 mph hampered the effort Tuesday, but winds subsided by daybreak Wednesday, allowing searchers in planes and helicopters to get closer to tree-speckled mountainsides and desert washes. A 600-square-mile area, from Hilton's ranch to Bishop, Calif., remains the focus of the hunt.

Authorities also deployed a Civil Air Patrol plane from Utah featuring a computer imaging system that can pinpoint objects such as a person or parts of an airplane amid the terrain's dizzying background of trees, sagebrush and granite boulders.

Ground crews and helicopters were focusing on parts of the Walker River Canyon and spots near Bishop and Lee Vining on the backside of Yosemite National Park after witnesses reported seeing a plane like Fossett's flying in the area Monday.

"We remain very optimistic that we can find this gentleman alive," said Gary Derks, operations officer for the Nevada Division of Emergency Services. "He's proven to be a good survivor. And he's not a reckless pilot."

Longtime friends also were confident that Fossett's experience and knack for surviving tough odds would pull him through.

"Steve is a tough old boot. I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now for someone to pick him up," Richard Branson, the British billionaire who has helped finance many of Fossett's adventures, said in a statement Tuesday. "Based on his track record, I feel confident we'll get some good news soon."

Civil Air Patrol's Ryan said Fossett departed with all the proper equipment. The plane, a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, had been well maintained by the staff at Hilton's compound near Yerington, Nev., she said. The tail of the aircraft was outfitted with an emergency satellite locater designed to begin broadcasting after a crash.

Although he is "the kind of guy who does occasionally push the envelope," Ryan said, Fossett has a proven track record of resilience. "There have been a few times when he's gotten himself into a pickle and managed to walk out 30 miles or more," she said.

Louis Billones, a meteorologist and retired college professor from Nebraska who charted the weather for Fossett's balloon adventures, recalled when the adventurer was pummeled by a thunderstorm and plummeted more than 20,000 feet into the sea off Australia. Fossett rode it out in his balloon's gondola before being rescued by the Australian Navy.

"I expect Steve Fossett to flag down some guy on a dirt mountain road in the Sierra Nevada and thumb a ride back into town," Billones said. "The guy is a survivor."

But Billones admitted to some worry. Fossett was known for throwing on his emergency-locating transmitter as soon as he touched down, Billones said. No signal has been picked up since he disappeared Monday.

Fossett also wears a sophisticated Breitling wristwatch designed to let pilots signal their location in an emergency, said Granger Whitelaw, who knows Fossett through the Rocket Racing League.

Whitelaw said Fossett almost certainly would use it if he could, sending out an emergency signal up to 90 miles. The absence of any signal "is the thing that worries me most about this," he said.

Even so, he said, "I have to have hope. Steve is such a great guy, like everyone's favorite uncle. He has a big smile and easy presence and a lot to share. It would be such a huge loss."

Some local pilots have speculated that the ferocious winds and thermals that can whip through Sierra passes and send planes plummeting earthward could have pushed Fossett into a disastrous situation.

Minden, a hotbed for sailplanes, has seen glider pilots crash through the years. A photo memorial to one pilot killed last year sits beside the oak-topped bar at the Minden-Tahoe Airport's Tail Dragger Cafe.

Whitelaw said he found it hard to fathom such a fate for Fossett, who logged thousands of hours in aircraft of all types and has flown in fierce weather conditions all over the world.

"You're talking about a guy who can read the weather like Tiger Woods can read a putt," he said. "He's one of a kind."

Fossett, who grew up in Garden Grove and became a millionaire financial trader long before capturing headlines as an adventurer, has set 116 records in sailing, ballooning, gliding, dirigibles and powered aircraft.

His latest goal was to drive a rocket car more than 800 mph. The celebrated adventurer has an application pending before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a permit in Nevada to make an attempt at breaking the land speed record of 766.6 mph.

In 2002, after five spectacular failures, Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon.

He also swam the English Channel in 1985, finished the Iditarod dog sled race in 1992, participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996 and broke the global sailing record by six days in 2004.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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