Rescue officials are relying on good weather and specialized aircraft technology today to hunt for missing adventurer Steve Fossett, a search that officials have compared to finding a needle in a 600-square-mile haystack.
The 63-year-old millionaire adventurer, who parlayed his financial fortune into a lifetime of daredevil pursuits and achievements, was last seen Monday morning as he took off in a single-engine prop plane southbound from the Flying M Ranch, 70 miles from Reno, Nev.
The private airstrip sits on a sprawling property that belongs to hotel magnate William Barron Hilton, a wealthy Fossett friend who supports his thirst for pushing the envelope.
Fossett's short flight in the plane, a Bellance Citabria Super Decathlon, was a scouting mission of dry lake beds in the area where he might attempt to break the world land-speed record of 766 mph. It was only supposed to last a few hours.
The Nevada wing of the Civil Air Patrol is now into a third day of searching for Fossett, who was reported missing Monday night after an initial search by friends turned up no sign of the pilot or the plane. By Tuesday, a full-blown air search was under way, with more than a dozen Civil Air Patrol and Nevada National Guard planes and helicopters — some equipped with infrared and other high-tech vision equipment — scouring the land for any sign of the blue and white aircraft.
Maj. Cynthia Ryan, a Civil Air Patrol spokeswoman, said today that reinforcement aircraft had arrived from the California and Utah Civil Air Patrols, including a plane equipped with "Archer" technology, which uses hyperspectral and panchromatic imaging systems to identify specific targets from the air.
"It can see as little as 10 percent of the target and extrapolate from there," Ryan said.
Rescue officials said that dangerous wind gusts that hampered the search Tuesday had subsided, leaving favorable search conditions for combing the rural area on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas where they believe Fossett may be.
Fossett had not filed a flight plan for the Monday trip, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, but officials say that it's not required and not uncommon when going out for a quick trip from a private airstrip. Still, the lack of a plan raises some questions about the footprint of the search area. Rescue teams tracked down two different signals they initially thought had come from an electronic locator transmitter on board Fossett's plane. Neither were connected to Fossett's plane, Ryan said.
Asked about the electronic locator transmitter technology, Ryan said the devices have saved many lives, but there are a number of reasons they may not work.
"An ELT [electronic locator transmitter] won't work when it's submerged, if it's underwater. It won't work if the batteries are low. It won't work if the impact is so great that it's destroyed," she said.
She added, however, that the pilot who flew the same plane on Hilton's ranch before Fossett's flight had told rescue officials that the plane's electronic locator was in working condition when he handed the plane over to Fossett.
Fossett's Friends Express Hope
While there undoubtedly is significant cause for concern, rescue officials and Fossett's friends say that if anyone can survive being stranded in the rugged wilderness, it's Fossett, whose pursuits also include serving as president of the National Eagle Scout Association.
"This man has a wonderful history of being able to walk out on his own," Ryan said. "He's done it more than once."
Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic and a close friend and financial backer of Fossett's high-profile daredevil attempts, described Fossett on Tuesday as a "tough old boot" who is well-prepared to survive a wilderness stranding.
Branson held onto that sentiment this morning.
"We just have to hope and pray that he hasn't hurt himself too badly and that he will be found today," Branson told "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer.
Branson said he thinks the plane Fossett was piloting would be capable of gliding if it lost engine power. Fossett and a co-pilot set an altitude record for gliding in 2006, climbing more than 50,000 feet above the Andes Mountains — one of many aviation records the adventurer holds.
In 2002, Fossett became the first person to circle the earth alone in a hot air balloon. It was his fifth attempt at the feat after several spectacular failures. In a 1998 bid, Fossett survived a 30,000-foot plummet on a balloon that crashed into the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia.
In 2005, Fossett fought through sleep deprivation and severe turbulence to break another record, becoming the first person to fly around the world solo without refueling. The trip took 76 hours.
In July, Fossett's flight accomplishments earned him a place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
"I'm hoping you didn't give me this award because you think my career is complete, because I'm not done," Fossett said at the induction ceremony in San Diego, adding that he would be in Argentina this fall to try to break another glider record.
Fossett has also broken more than 20 speed sailing records. He has competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and an Ironman Triathlon. He has swum the English Channel and reached the highest peaks in six of the seven continents.
The adventurer, who in total claims more than 100 world records or firsts, has an application pending before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a permit in Eureka County, Nev., to break the land-speed record. According to Fossett's Web site, www.stevefossett.com, his goal is to hit 800 mph.