10 years ago: Steve Fossett and his aircraft go missing in the Nevada desert

Sept. 3, 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of Steve Fossett, the Chicago millionaire businessman who gained fame through his record-breaking feats of flight.

The 63-year-old took off in a single-engine aircraft from a ranch owned by hotel magnate Barry Hilton about 70 miles from Reno, Nev. He was believed to have been searching by air for suitable dry lake beds ahead of a world land speed record attempt, but did not file a flight plan.

Search attempts in the Nevada desert failed to turn up wreckage of Fossett’s plane. On Sept. 29, 2008, a hiker found three crumpled identification cards belonging to Fossett in the Eastern Sierra Nevada in California. Air search teams spotted the wreckage on Oct. 1. Human bones found near the crash site were confirmed by DNA tests as Fossett’s remains.

What follows is the original coverage of his disappearance. 

Chicago businessman Steve Fossett, the adventurer millionaire who routinely has defied death in his pursuit of aviation records and conquests ranging from scaling some of the world’s tallest mountains to swimming the length of the Golden Gate bridge at night, remained missing late Tuesday, more than a day after his plane vanished into the unforgiving Nevada desert.

More than a dozen rescue aircraft launched a grid search of the craggy, remote terrain near the western Nevada ranch from which Fossett took off Monday morning on what was to have been an easy three-hour flight.

Searchers had little clue as to where the world-famous aviator may be because he hadn’t filed a flight plan before takeoff. They flew close to the uneven earth, peering into “nooks and crannies,” according to Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, which is participating in the search for Fossett.

At the Chicago office of Larkspur Securities Inc., one of the companies headed by the trading genius who made much of his fortune on the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the mood was grim on Tuesday afternoon. Employees did little other than wait for updates on their lost boss.

“We learned about what’s happening this morning from his wife,” said Brian Spaeth, who has worked for Fossett for more than five years. “She sounded very panicky. We’re all just sitting here now, waiting for news. We’re basically just waiting, and hoping.”

Wife waits at Nevada ranch

Spaeth said that Peggy Fossett, who has often been described by her husband as being risk-adverse and strongly opposed to many of his perilous adventures, was anxiously staying at the Flying M Ranch. The ranch, about 70 miles southeast of Reno, is where Steve Fossett had taken off at about 9 a.m. Monday. The Flying M, owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, is known as a place where aviation enthusiasts gather on weekends.

According to a statement released Tuesday by Richard Branson, the British billionaire who finances many of Fossett’s endeavors, the aviator had been flying the Nevada desert in search of dry lake beds that might be suitable for an adventure Fossett had planned: an attempt to set the land-speed record in a car, a vehicle whose engine once powered an Air Force fighter jet.

Ryan said the experienced pilot had “full radio capability” when he left the Nevada ranch but hadn’t made radio contact with anyone since takeoff. She maintained there was reason for hope, noting that flying conditions on Monday morning, when Fossett disappeared, were “optimal.” Moreover, rescuers hadn’t picked up signals from the plane’s emergency location transmitter, signals that could be expected had the plane landed with heavy impact.

“This is a rescue mission,” Ryan said. “Until we have more information, it will remain that.”

Fossett, 63, who has a home in Beaver Creek, Colo., is perhaps best known for becoming the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon, a challenge completed in 2002 after five attempts, including one that ended in a crash landing in a remote village in India and one in which he plummeted 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea after his balloon was shredded in severe weather.

In 2005, he set another world record as the first person to complete a solo unrefueled circumnavigation of the world, a plane trip that took 67 hours and became a fingernail-biting affair after a leak drained much of his spare oxygen and fuel.

Fossett also has set a record gliding more than 50,000 feet above the Andes Mountains, participated in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska, swam the English Channel and acted as skipper on the vessel that set the world sailing record for fastest circumnavigation of the globe.

As evening fell over Nevada on Tuesday, searchers in 13 aircraft continued to watch for signs of Fossett’s white, blue and orange Bellanca Citabria Super Decathalon, a two-seat plane capable of aerobatic maneuvers. Most people who know him agree that even the exhilaration-loving Fossett did not do that kind of flying.

Fossett disclaimed ‘death wish’

“I’m doing these things for personal accomplishment, not the thrills,” Fossett, a Stanford University graduate, once told his school’s alumni magazine. “I don’t do these things because I have a death wish.”

Yet even those most devoted to accomplishments of aviation well recognized the reality that comes with the kinds of adventures for which Fossett is renowned.

“When you push the envelope, setting records and trying to find new means of getting things done, there is a deep and inherent risk,” said Ron Kaplan, executive director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, into which Fossett had been inducted in July.

Kaplan said he and his staff had been in the process of compiling a photo album for Fossett of images from the night he was honored by the NAHF. In many of the photos, he stands with the man who introduced him that night, Dick Rutan, known for co-piloting a plane around the world in 1986.

“We hadn’t even mailed that album off yet,” Kaplan said.

Another inductee, Scott Crossfield — the first to break Mach 2 and Mach 3 — was involved in a flying accident shortly after he was awarded the Hall of Fame honor. In 2006, Crossfield’s plane was caught in adverse weather; he died in the resulting crash.

John Kugler, a longtime friend who taught Fossett ballooning and said that Fossett is a careful, capable flyer, noted he remained hopeful Fossett would be found alive. There has been speculation that Fossett might have landed somewhere to survey a lake bed and been unable to take off for some reason.

“They’re going to find him on a mountainside,” Kugler said. “He’s going to be hungry and want some good food.”

Those who knew Fossett seemed to agree Tuesday that though he clearly lived a risky lifestyle, he was not cavalier with his life.

The retired trader was described as a meticulous and careful planner who left nothing to chance; rescuers said they had been told that even for a flight of a few hours, Fossett had four full tanks of fuel on board.

Ryan, the Nevada Civil Air Patrol spokeswoman, said it wasn’t unusual that Fossett hadn’t filed a flight plan, because he was flying out of a remote, private airstrip.

As admirers of Fossett awaited word, Kaplan, the director of the Aviation Hall of Fame, remembered something Fossett said during his induction in July.

“I’m hoping you didn’t give me this award because you think my career is complete,” the earnest, onetime Eagle Scout told the audience. “Because I’m not done.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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