/ 5 September 2007

Record-breaking aviator Fossett missing

Steve Fossett, the adventurer who cheated death several times during his perambulations around the globe by air and sea, was missing on Tuesday night after taking off from a ranch in Nevada for a short flight in a single-engine plane.

Rescue teams were scouring the rugged terrain of western Nevada on Tuesday for a plane wreck or any other trace of Fossett, a millionaire aviator made famous for his quest to break world records.

Fossett (63) who is the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, took off from the Flying M ranch, on Monday morning on what was supposed to be a brief recreational flight. He was last seen heading south on a clear morning.

As night drew near on Tuesday, 13 aircraft as well as ground crew were scouring the desert for the blue and white Citabria Super Decathlon he was piloting. Rescue teams were deployed from the national guard, the local navy station, and the California highway patrol.

”We are committing maximum resources to this mission. We would do this for anyone,” Major Cynthia Ryan, a spokesperson for the civil aviation authorities, told reporters.

But their progress was affected by high winds and the lack of a flight plan. Fossett was not equipped with a parachute, and he was not carrying a satellite phone or radio equipment because he intended to be gone for just a few hours.

The tycoon had been scheduled to leave the ranch, an exclusive, invitation-only venue owned by the Hilton family, at lunchtime on Monday with his wife, Peggy.

Despite those complications, John Kugler, a friend who taught Fossett ballooning, said he was optimistic.

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

By Fossett’s standards, Monday’s flight was just a short hop — the most routine of journeys. Recently he had made a career of setting standards in adventure travel, sometime in collaboration with his friend and patron, Richard Branson.

Branson said: ”Steve is a tough old boot. I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now for someone to pick him up … I feel confident we’ll get some good news soon.”

A successful businessman, Fossett made a second career in breaking world records for travel around the globe by balloon, sail boat and plane. In 1995, he made the first solo crossing of the Pacific in a balloon.

Three years later, he teamed up with Branson to try to make the first multiperson circumnavigation of the Earth in a balloon, but they were forced to ditch in Hawaii.

The pair teamed up again two years ago. With Branson as his investor, Fossett completed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the globe without refuelling in just over 67 hours.

Paul Charles, a spokesperson for Branson, said on Tuesday: ”We understand Steve Fossett was searching for … lake beds which might be suitable for his plan to break the land speed record.” – Guardian Unlimited Â