Plane Carrying Aviation Adventurer Steve Fossett Missing

Tuesday, September 4th 2007, 1:39 pm
By: News On 6

RENO, Nev. (AP) _ 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, 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.

The 63-year-old took off at 8:45 a.m. Monday from an airstrip at hotel magnate Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno. It wasn't clear whether anyone else was aboard.

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

Six aircraft were doing grid searches over hundreds of square miles, said Maj. Cynthia S. Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. The search was being coordinated by the Air Force's Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Many of Fossett's adventures have been financed by U.K. billionaire Sir Richard Branson. A Branson spokesman said Fossett had been scouting locations for an upcoming attempt to break the land speed record in a car.

``We understand that Steve Fossett was flying solo and he was carrying four full tanks of gas on board,'' Paul Charles said. ``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 is married to the former Peggy Viehland of Richmond Heights, Mo.

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 Fossett is a careful, capable flyer and said his aircraft a ``safe plane'' and 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, came 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.