Missing aviator's location remains mystery despite massive search

By: TOM GARDNER, AP
By: TOM GARDNER, AP

MINDEN, Nev. (AP) - Undeterred by a series of false sightings, the teams scouring Nevada's high desert for missing adventurer Steve Fossett maintained a massive aerial search Saturday as urgency grew to try to find him alive.
The search included 45 airplanes and helicopters - 25 under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol and the rest flown by private pilots operating from a ranch owned by hotel mogul Barron Hilton, about 80 miles southeast of Reno.
"It's the biggest one I've ever been involved in," said Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, which is overseeing the search-and-rescue effort.
She said the operation could continue for weeks. But concerns about the 63-year-old aviator's ability to survive in the harsh landscape are growing as the search continues with no solid clues about where his plane might have gone down.
Authorities believe Fossett was carrying just a single bottle of water when he took off from the private airstrip on Hilton's ranch Monday morning for a three-hour flight.
"There's been nothing, absolutely nothing," said John Kugler of Nebraska, a close friend of Fossett's who taught him ballooning. "Nobody knows anything. It's a mystery."
Fossett's friends were trying to remain upbeat, knowing he has a long history of living through danger.
He is most notable for being the first person to circle the globe solo in a balloon but also has embarked on a lengthy list of extreme adventures since making millions as a commodities broker in Chicago.
He swam the English channel, completed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, sailed around the world and scaled some of the highest mountains on Earth.
When his plane disappeared, Fossett was believed to be scouting dry lake beds as possible locations for his latest thrill ride, an upcoming attempt to break the land speed record in a rocket-propelled car.
Associates say he is not only a top aviator but also a first-rate survivalist.
Still, Saturday marked the sixth day he had been lost in one of the most unforgiving regions in the continental U.S. Authorities revised the overall size of the search area from 10,000 square miles to 17,000, a region about twice the size of New Jersey.
In a stark illustration of the region's remoteness, searchers have discovered six old plane crashes that had not previously been identified since they began the intensive hunt for Fossett on Tuesday.
Pilots from Hilton's Flying M Ranch have joined the hunt for Fossett throughout the week, help that has been welcomed by the authorities conducting the official search. The pilots flying from the ranch, which has its own mile-long runway, operate in conjunction with the Nevada Civil Air Patrol.
Hilton spokesman Pat Barry said the pilots were friends of Fossett's.
"It's the aviation community," he said. "They're tight-knit."
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons on Saturday made his first comments about the search, which has generated worldwide attention.
"The No. 1 thing the state wants the family to know is our hopes and our prayers go out for Steve and his family for what they are going through," he told The Associated Press during a visit to the Minden Airport to meet with ground crews involved in the operation. "Also what we want to do is to make all of the resources we have available to resolve this very difficult situation."
The Nevada Army and Air National Guard combined have spent about $180,000 so far on the search for Fossett, and Nevada taxpayers will pay for part of that, Nevada Guard spokeswoman April Conway said.
Conway said taxpayers will be billed for the money spent on National Guard helicopters, an amount that was $110,321 through Thursday night. The rest has been spent on a Nevada Air Guard C-130 cargo plane, but that money is coming out of an account that finances training missions, she said.
Officials for the Nevada Highway Patrol and Civil Air Patrol said Friday they do not know how much their agencies have spent.
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Associated Press Writers Brendan Riley in Carson City and Scott
Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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