/ 6 September 2007

Rescuers scour desert for signs of Fossett’s plane

Rescue planes and a helicopter were launched over Nevada’s rugged terrain at dawn on Wednesday as the search for the millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett entered its third day.

More than 14 planes from the civil air patrol and national guard were expected to be deployed, scouring the brush, mountains and ravines for any sign of the Bellanca Citabria single-engine plane being used by Fossett. The search was refined overnight to 960 square kilometres of territory, down from 120 000 square kilometres on Tuesday.

Rescue workers were heartened by calmer winds that would allow search planes to fly at about 300m above ground and close to the mountains that rise to 3 048m. High winds gusting at 64km/h on Tuesday prevented the mission from searching as intensely.

The search planes and helicopters could draw on the help of infrared and other vision-enhancing equipment.

Fossett took off from a Nevada ranch owned by the Hilton family at 9am on Monday. He was expected back at the ranch, where his wife, Peggy, was also staying, by noon, and was carrying fuel for four or five hours’ flying. When he failed to return that afternoon, the alarm was raised.

The search has been hampered by the fact that Fossett (63) who set out on what his friends thought was a short routine flight, left no flight plan. There have also been no signals intercepted by rescuers that could lead them to him.

His plane is equipped with a GPS alarm that sends out emergency signals in the event of a crash landing, but no such signal had been received.

If there were no crash landing, he would also be able to operate the tracking beacon manually. Nor has there been any signal picked up from a watch that Fossett is believed to wear that also acts as a GPS location device.

Richard Branson, the billionaire tycoon who collaborated on many of Fossett’s expeditions, including his first solo flight around the world in a balloon, sounded a more sombre note on Wednesday, saying he was worried that his partner might be injured as he had not manually triggered the beacon on the plane or from his watch.

But he added: ”If anyone’s going to end up walking back up [to] the ranch and apologising for pranging the Hiltons’ plane, it’s likely to be Steve Fossett.”

Those involved in the search emphasised that Fossett had the skills and the determination to survive.

Major Cynthia Ryan of the civil air patrol, said she doubted that any sudden wind burst would have caught him by surprise. The winds were calm, and it was ”just a really delightful day to go flying”. Moreover, ”he knows mountain flying, which is an art in and of itself,” she said.

She said the search was like ”a very large haystack, and an aeroplane is a very small needle”. But she added: ”He’s a savvy and methodical and determined pilot. I’d give him the highest odds.”

At one point, the authorities said they thought they had spotted Fossett’s plane and sent in a helicopter crew to confirm. ”We thought we had it nailed,” Major Ryan told reporters late on Wednesday. ”Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of many dozen unmapped wreck sites from previous years.”

Fossett is experienced in coping with inhospitable country. He has several endurance events under his belt such as the Leadville trail run, a 160km race on foot through the Colorado Rockies, and the Iditarod sled dog race over 1 840150km of Alaska. He once made a 48km walk to safety after a forced landing.

Were he to have survived any crash landing, he would also be helped by the relative mild climate at this time of year. At night the temperature falls to about 9C, rising during the day about 27C.

True to form, he was embarking on a reconnaissance of Nevada dry lakes as part of his latest adventure obsession.

He was searching for a long strip of lake bed which could be used to test out his Sonic Arrow, a turbo-jet racing car in which he hoped to challenge the land speed record. The record was set in 1997 by the Briton Andy Green at 1 226,56km/h in the Black Rock desert, also in Nevada. – Guardian Unlimited Â