More than a dozen aircraft are searching for record-holding aviator Steve Fossett, missing since Monday when the millionaire took off in a light aircraft from a private airstrip in Nevada on a flight that was to last no more than three hours.
Fossett took off at 9 a.m. PST from the hotel magnate Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch airstrip 30 miles south of Yerington, Nev., on a flight to reconnoiter dry lakebeds in the vicinity that might be of use for an undisclosed future project, said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan in a press conference held Tuesday at 1 p.m. PST.
Flying a borrowed Bellance Citabria Super Decathlon tandem two-seat taildragger registered N240R, Fossett was due to return to the Flying M Ranch airfield by Monday noon local time to leave for another destination in his own aircraft.
He flew in a southerly direction after taking off in the single-engine plane, Ryan said. Fossett, the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, had not filed a flight plan, but Ryan said this was nothing out of the ordinary for local flights from remote airstrips in lightly used airspace. The fact that no flight plan was filed suggested that Fossett planned to conduct his entire flight under visual flight rules.
The 63-year-old did not return as scheduled around noon, and a friend reported him missing Monday night, said Ian Gregor, an Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.
The Flying M Ranch then used some of its own aircraft to begin searching for the adventurer, holder of 115 world records in five sports. By 6 p.m. Monday, when the unofficial search had failed to find Fossett, the airfield notified Nevada's Office of Emergency Management, which promptly began a search of the ramps of nearby airfields to make sure that Fossett had not landed at any of them, said Ryan.
The search was called off as darkness fell, but began again today at 7 a.m. PST. Along with ground crews, 13 aircraft from the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Naval Air Station Fallon, the Nevada National Guard and the California Highway Patrol continued the search for Fossett and his aircraft, Ryan said. The search is being coordinated from the Air National Guard base at Minden, Nev.
When Fossett disappeared, weather "conditions were optimal," said Ryan, with visibility of 10 miles and calm air or very light variable winds. And the plane Fossett was flying is capable of aerobatic maneuvers, Ryan said.
"He had more than enough fuel on board so that should not have been an issue either,'' she said.
The search teams were doing grid searches over hundreds of square miles, she said. "We are committing maximum resources to this effort,'' she said.
However, conditions today in the search area, which is centered in an area that begins 30 miles south and east of the Flying M Ranch and extends no further than Bishop, Calif., are difficult for conducting a search by air.
Aircraft involved in the search are experiencing high winds and "moderate" turbulence, with crews searching at low altitudes likely to find their heads being banged on the ceilings of their aircraft, said Ryan. If the winds get any stronger the search may have to be called off for the day, said Ryan, who confirmed the authorities still see the search very much as a "rescue" mission.
Fossett's aircraft had an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) that would have been activated upon a hard landing, said Ryan. He also had "full radio capability," but made no radio contact with the Flying M Ranch after he took off on his flight. The aircraft he was flying had enough fuel for up to five hours of flying.
The terrain over which Fossett was flying ranged from flat salt beds often used as a backdrop for car commercials to rugged mountainous regions packed with deep gullies and narrow valleys. Fossett's aircraft was painted blue and white with orange stripes and sunburst patterns on the tops of its wings.
Ryan did not confirm if any signals had been received from the ELT in Fossett's aircraft, but said the authorities were following up on "some electronic data" that might provide clues to the location of Fossett and his aircraft.
Paul Charles, a spokesman for Sir Richard Branson, the U.K. billionaire who has financed many of Fossett's adventures, said: "We understand that Steve Fossett was flying solo and he was carrying four full tanks of gas on board. He was searching for dry and empty lake beds which might be suitable for his plan to break the land speed record.''
A telephone message left for a Peggy Fossett in Colorado, where Steve Fossett lives, was not immediately returned. Fossett is married to the former Peggy Viehland.
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 (31,265.85 kilometers) 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 is 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.''
In March 2005, Fossett 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 (15,444.52 meters) during a flight in August 2006 over the Andes Mountains.
Fossett 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. He broke the round-the-world sailing record by six days in 2004.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.