Leaders of the search for Steve Fossett scaled back the aerial operation again Wednesday but insisted they are "not giving up" their effort to find the millionaire adventurer missing for 17 days.
Following the lead of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol's move on Monday, the Nevada National Guard sent its helicopters back to their home bases on Wednesday where they will remain on standby to respond to any new leads in the search that has stretched across a section of western Nevada and California twice the size of New Jersey.
"This is not a stand down. We are not giving up," Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan said Wednesday.
"It's a scale down. No one is abandoning anything."
"I think everyone would still like to hold out some hope that he is out there and still alive," she said.
But given the dozens of aircraft that have been committed to the effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, the search "has to be lead-driven at this point," Ryan told reporters at the Minden-Tahoe Airport about 40 miles southeast of Reno.
"The air assets we have have already saturated so much of the area five or six times," she said.
"There is really not much more we can do without new information."
Fossett hasn't been seen since he took off Sept. 3 in a single-engine airplane from a private airstrip at the Flying M Ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton about 80 miles southeast of Reno.
It was supposed to be a short Labor Day joyride in the lightweight acrobatic plane.
A search was launched after he failed to return by noon, the time he said he'd be back.
Since then, the search has covered up to 20,000 square miles, with a concentration on a 50-mile circle around the airstrip based on past history that shows most crashes occur within that radius during takeoff or landing.
As many as four Nevada Army Guard helicopters that had been operating out of the ranch southeast of Yerington were sent back to
their home base at the Stead Airport just north of Reno on Wednesday, Nevada Guard Maj. Ed Locke said.
On Monday, the Civil Air Patrol took a similar approach, leaving two CAP planes on standby at the airport in Minden should any "credible leads" be developed, Ryan said.
The command center also was being shifted Wednesday to the state
emergency operation center in Carson City.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen said the operation is still being treated as a search and rescue as opposed to recovery.
"We are not going to change the status of the search. We're only downsizing and removing our footprint here at the Minden airport," Allen said.
Hilton and Fossett's wife, Peggy, continue to finance an aerial search, with approximately eight aircraft in the air Wednesday, Ryan said.
She said there had been no criticism of the scaling back of the military's part of the search.
"I think they understand this cannot go on at the same levels indefinitely," Ryan said.
Fossett, who made millions as a commodities broker in Chicago, is the first person to circle the globe solo in a balloon.
He also swam the English channel, completed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and scaled some of the highest mountains on Earth.
Most of the cost of the search has been incurred by the Nevada National Guard, an estimated $615,000, officials said.
Most of the CAP planes were volunteered and there's been no estimate of the costs to several local counties that have assisted.
CAP volunteers from eight states - Nevada, California, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon and Colorado - have devoted more than 13,000 man hours to the effort, CAP Acting National Commander Brig. Gen. Amy Courter said Wednesday.
"The mission has been conducted using proven techniques designed to achieve the highest probability of success and, in many cases, has involved multiple searches of the same areas. We are now waiting for new leads and as they develop we will check them out," she said in a statement from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Courter said she too maintains hope that Fossett will be found alive.
"We have seen cases in which people have survived much longer than this," she said, "and in consideration of the extraordinary accomplishments Mr. Fossett has made in his lifetime, we are hopeful that this will be another achievement to add to his memoirs."