/ 9 September 2007

Missing adventurer was low on water

Hope was fading that the missing multi-millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett would be found alive following his disappearance on Monday while flying a small plane over the vast Nevada desert, as it was revealed on Saturday that he had taken only one canteen of water with him.

As the mystery over the 63-year-old Fossett’s fate deepened, almost 30 helicopters, light planes and even a C-130 Hercules continued to scour the 16 000 square kilometres of desert that is crisscrossed with jagged mountain ranges, gullies and steep canyons.

On Saturday the emergency authorities revealed the daunting scale of the challenge confronting them when they revealed that 150 sites of suspected air crashes that had occurred in the area had never been identified. On Friday search parties spotted the wreckage of a small plane on the side of a sand hill, but it turned out to be the debris from a fatal crash that took place three decades ago.

The search has been complicated by the fact that Fossett did not file his flight plan for what he planned as a three-hour trip, and that there was no communication from him to suggest his aircraft was in trouble. Fossett, who made the first solo, non-stop, non-refuelled circumnavigation of the world in 67 hours in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, became in 2002 the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.

Searchers tried to glean any positive news they could from the old crashes they discovered during an otherwise discouraging week. ”We are finding a lot of stuff we didn’t know was there,” Civil Air Patrol Major Cynthia Ryan said.

The lack of any solid news about the aviator’s fate is weighing heavily on his family. Lyon County undersheriff Joe Sanford said Fossett’s wife, Marilyn, and other family remembers remained optimistic. ”Everyone here is hopeful. But I’ve got to tell you that the family is subdued and they’re having a tough time,’ said Sanford. ‘No one knows what happened or where he is.”

A massive search and rescue attempt has been under way. The sometime flying partner of Virgin boss Richard Branson had set off on Monday from a private ranch owned by the hotel magnate Barron Hilton. Although Fossett has had close calls before, including plunging in a storm-damaged balloon into the sea off Australia, the lack of food and water have raised fears that if he is not found soon, he will not be found alive at all, assuming he survived whatever mishap befell his aircraft.

”He’s a survivalist,” Nevada state police spokesperson Chuck Allen told local media. ”The hopeful scenario is that his plane went down — either he put it down, or something caused it to go down — and he survived and is not too badly injured. The weather has been cooperating — it’s not been too cold at night, not too hot in the daytime. If he’s not too immobilised for any reason we’re confident he can survive in the elements outside.”

Allen added that several springs and rivers in the area were searched, in the hope that Fossett had survived and was making his way to a source of water.

Hopes had been raised when rescuers had spotted wreckage six times during the search, only to be dashed when they were identified as wrecks dating back 50 years. ”We’re finding so many sites, and it gives families closure,” Ryan added.

Although Fossett’s single-engine Bellanca aircraft was equipped with an electronic tracking device designed to be triggered in the event of a rough landing, it appears not to have been activated. – Guardian Unlimited Â