Rescuers search for famed aviator

Buffeted by high winds, air crews flew over Western Nevada desert and mountain terrain Tuesday searching for famed aviator Steve Fossett who had been missing for more than 24 hours.

Fossett, 63, took off at 9 a.m. Monday from the Flying M Ranch near Wellington which is owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton.

He failed to return by noon and a formal search was initiated by 6 p.m. although friends began looking for the millionaire entrepreneur hours earlier.

Fossett was flying a Citabria Super Decathlon single-engine aircraft with the tail number N240R. The blue-and-white aircraft had orange stripes and blue sunburst designs on top of the wings.

"The biggest problem is the velocity of the wind," said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Stan Campbell who returned to Minden-Tahoe Airport shortly after noon Tuesday to refuel after four hours in the air.

By early afternoon, the wind was gusting at 25-30 mph.

"We tried to fly the same route as the missing plane," he said of search efforts with two other Civil Air Patrol members.

"You can't get close to the ground," Campbell said.

Mike Gilles, a pilot for the Hilton ranch and friend of the missing aviator, said Fossett was "adventurous, but not arrogant."

Gilles refueled at the airport about 12:30 p.m.

"It wouldn't surprise me if he had to put the plane down and we see him walking out in a couple of days," he said.

Gilles began searching right after Fossett failed to arrive back at the ranch.

The missing plane belongs to the ranch, said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the Minden airport.

"It's a well-known plane and very durable," she said.

She said it was unlikely that an experienced pilot like Fossett would miscalculate his fuel needs.

"A guy like that, he's figuring fuel out in his head," she said.

Ryan said friends believed Fossett may have been scouting dry lake beds for further attempts to break the landspeed record.

Tuesday's air and ground search was a cooperative effort between the Nevada National Guard, Nevada Highway Patrol, California Highway Patrol, Fallon Naval Air Station and private resources.

Six Civil Air Patrol aircraft with crews of three were joined by helicopters, private airplanes and a Nevada Air Guard C130.

Ryan said heavy winds were forecast for the rest of Tuesday afternoon, but crews would stay up as long as possible.

"There will be no cut-off point until crews start telling us there is too much turbulence," she said.

"You've got a lot of high desert terrain, dry lake beds and mountain peaks. It's pretty rugged and they're looking in all the nooks and crannies," she said.

Fossett has strong ties to Minden and Nevada. He broke the world gliding speed record for 1,250 kilometers in Ely and is planning a run at the landspeed record in Reno.

Local pilot Jim Herd met with Fossett over the past five years in places like Minden, Ely and the annual Oshkosh, Wis., air show, he said.

"He also has a submarine project. He wants to dive deeper than anyone has ever gone," Herd said. "He has incredible drive. He wanted to be the world's best.

"He would talk about his escapades but he didn't like to. He is well-respected, a true American hero," Herd said. "He isn't in it for the fame, or to make money. He's a man of substance - talented, accomplished and willing to put his life on the line."

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.

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.

He made his fortune in the American financial services industry and is best known for his five world record nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth: as a long-distance solo balloonist, as a sailor, and as a solo airplane pilot.

He lives in Beaver Creek, Colo., with his wife, who reportedly was at the Yerington ranch on Tuesday.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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