Steve Fossett officially dead, but hope still lingers

The search is over.

Friday in a Cook County, Illinois courtroom, Judge Jeffrey Malak said there was "sufficient evidence" to declare millionaire adventurer and aviation pioneer Steve Fossett dead after hearing an update from wife, Peggy Fossett, a family friend and a search-and-rescue expert.

Since Sept. 3, 2007, the day Fossett went down somewhere in the Northern Nevada

desert, a glimmer of hope he would be found seemed to remain.

The first admission he may have been lost for good came less than a month after his disappearance on Oct. 2, 2007.

That day Peggy called off the search for her missing husband and his plane.

"As difficult as it is for me to reach this conclusion, I no longer hold out any hope that Steve has survived," wrote Peggy in court documents filed with the Cook County Circuit Court that day.

In spite of Peggy's call, the search continued into 2008, involving dozens of search and rescue officials as well as volunteer aviators spending hundreds of hours poring over the hillsides and flats of the Northern Nevada desert with a fine-toothed comb.

That fateful day, Fossett flew an alleged routine morning route in his Bellanca Super Decathlon, a small two-person plane about the same size as a single-prop Cessna.

Though he did not leave a specific flight plan and was reportedly carrying a single bottle of water and no parachute, guests and fellow aviators staying that fall weekend at Barron Hilton's fabled Flying M Ranch near Yerington speculated he was out scouting salt flats for a pending go at a land-speed record.

Prior to the flight, he said he was going to return for lunch at the ranch just outside Mason Valley.

He never showed.

In the months that followed, the search was characterized as harder than "finding a needle in a haystack" by Robert Keiholtz, a captain in the California Civil Air Patrol.

Keiholtz noted a "number of planes" are still missing in the Northern Nevada desert " millions of acres characterized by Kim Toulouse, volunteer coordinator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, as an "aviation graveyard."

As federal and state agencies downsized searches in the months leading to 2008, independent aircraft operators and concerned members of the aviation community ramped up a private search.

One of the latest postings on even narrowed down the expected route Fossett was thought to have taken that day.

"It is now believed that Steve Fossett was unlikely to have ventured far afield (such as crossing the Sierra Nevada range), but that he was more likely to have been on a local pleasure flight ... The search is now primarily focused on a 30- to 50-mile radius of the ranch."

As time wore on, rumors and conspiracy theories spread on the Internet.

Most insisted Fossett was involved in some type of government imbroglio concerning a flight plan around fabled Area 51.

"Anyone familiar with the 1955 SciFi film 'This Island Earth' knows the scene where the small aircraft is captured by a flying saucer. And a whole lot of us are going to be disappointed if the search for Fossett turns out to be something really prosaic rather than him and his plane suddenly vanishing and never heard from again," wrote Sam Heath, a blogger on the Tehachapi (Calif.) News. "Fossett is a very experienced pilot so it is going to be interesting to see how the story unfolds .... what if Fossett decided to land in Area 51? Hey, he's a known adventurer. I know I'm probably doomed to disappointment but I'm pinning my hopes on another episode of the Twilight Zone."

Those intrinsically involved with the search eschewed the fringe theories, and instead focused on finding the self-made tycoon, a Stanford grad worth an estimated eight figures who made his fortune trading soy beans.

Though the Division of Emergency Management for the State of Nevada suspended the search for Fossett last December, officials like Gary Derks, the division's operations manager, still held out hope.

"We've got private organizations that are going to be out there," he said last month. "There's a lot of people out there still searching. Is the state putting people out there? No. But Mr. Fossett is not forgotten."

Derks was unavailable for comment Saturday but previously stated the search would not be "completely called off" until Fossett was found.

Fossett struck up a high-profile rivalry and friendship with the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson during the 1980s.

In the '90s, the dueling adventurers battled to be the first to take a hot air balloon around.

In 1998, the pair joined forces and went for the record. After six failed attempts, Fossett, in 2002, floated nonstop for 19,428 miles around the southern hemisphere. The record-breaking trip took him two weeks.

In 2005, Fossett became the first solo pilot to fly a plane around the world without stopping to refuel in the Branson-sponsored GlobalFlyer.

A year later in the same aircraft, he completed the longest nonstop flight in aviation history " logging 26,389 miles in 76 hours.

"He began adventuring in a modest way, swimming the English Channel in 1985," Branson wrote in a recent tribute to his friend in 'Time.'

"Over the next 22 years, he amassed 115 records in aviation, gliding, ballooning, sailing, boating, mountaineering, skiing, triathlon, even dogsledding. He truly was the adventurer's adventurer.

"I and all his many friends around the world miss Steve very much. On behalf of them, I would like to extend our thoughts and prayers to his lovely wife, Peggy. It is hard to say goodbye to a true American hero when a part of me can't help thinking he will still walk out of that harsh and unforgiving desert that encompassed so much of what he loved about the great outdoors ..."


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