Steve Fossett’s last challenge?

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The missing adventurer has flirted with death in the past, but he has always made it through

The missing adventurer has flirted with death in the past, but he has always made it through

Steve Fossett loves an adventure, and that gets the sailor, balloonist, aviator, jet-car racer into some tough scrapes.

The 63-year-old multimillionaire crash-landed a hot-air balloon in the Coral Sea while attempting to circle the world. He bumped along the ground for six miles in Chile to put the brakes on a balloon in another of his exploits. And he struggled into port in a round-the-world race, the sails of his 125-foot maxicatamaran tattered and daggerboard damaged.

Now Fossett may be in his toughest scrape yet. The one-time Chicago commodities trader took off at 8 a.m. Sept. 3 from a landing strip at hotelier William Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, 75 miles south of Reno, Nev. It was supposed to be a 2- to 2.5-hour pleasure flight — he and his wife, Peggy, were scheduled to leave the resort at noon — but two weeks later Fossett still was missing in the desolate Nevada backcountry.

A massive air and ground search continued, with more than 650 rescuers scouring the mountains, lakes and remote canyons for Fossett and the single-engine, blue-and-white Citabria Super Decathlon he was piloting. The Civil Air Patrol, Nevada Army and Air National Guards, Nevada Highway Patrol and a small air force of private aircraft flying out of the ranch had found eight other wrecks but no sign of Fossett’s plane. Rescuers were using infrared detectors for night searches and imaging technology that delivers 15 times the detail that the human eye can. Internet search-

engine giant Google joined the search, recruiting volunteers to pore over thousands of satellite images on the Web. Search organizers were looking for turbine helicopters suitable for high-altitude operations and experienced mountain pilots to search the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Altogether, aircraft had searched more than 10,000 square miles.

“This is an incredible collaboration between military, law enforcement and civilian expertise,” says Peggy Fossett in a statement on www.stevefossett.com. “The outpouring of help from around the world has been extraordinary.”

Searchers first thought Fossett might have taken to the skies that morning to survey dry lake beds as test sites for the turbojet-powered racer he planned to drive to a new land speed record. However, they later believed he was just out flying for fun and scaled back the search area to 50 miles from the ranch.

The Decathlon, an acrobatics plane, was carrying a 121.5-MHz electronic locator transmitter, and Fossett was wearing a watch with a 121.5-MHz personal locator beacon. Authorities say they had picked up signals from neither of these.

Like many who know Fossett — or know of him — naval architect Pete Melvin was puzzled by the adventurer’s disappearance. No emergency signal, no trace of wreckage — like the disappearance of Amelia Earhart who was lost over the Pacific 70 years ago. “It’s hard to speculate without any physical evidence what happened to him,” says Melvin, who with business partner Gino Morrelli was a friend of Fossett and designed his record-setting 125-foot PlayStation cat. Melvin says if anyone can survive in the Nevada wild, Fossett can.

He says Fossett trains for his exploits and is in excellent physical shape. “He isn’t superhuman as far as physical ability, but he is always very well-prepared,” Melvin says, and focused. He says if Fossett managed to walk away from the plane, he could keep going.

“He doesn’t give up at all where other people might,” says Paul van Dyke, a sailmaker who crewed with Fossett on his record-setting voyage around the world aboard Cheyenne in 2004. “He just doesn’t give up until the goal is achieved. He is very patient.”

Those are attributes that could serve him well now. It is his patience, perseverance and drive to take on challenges that make Fossett probably the greatest record-setter of all time, with 115 of them — feats of speed, distance, altitude and sheer grit — set over a lifetime of sailing, flying, ballooning and gliding.

Fossett chased sailing world records for speed and distance for 11 years, setting 23 between 1993 and 2004 (including two single-handed records) with the 60-foot trimaran Lakota, the 60-foot catamaran Stars & Stripes and the 125-foot (formerly 105-foot) maxicat PlayStation, aka Cheyenne. Several of those records still stand. He came to sailing a novice, but — as in everything he has taken up — he set goals for himself, says Melvin. He decides years in advance to break records, then prepares meticulously to accomplish that. If it requires a new design or new technology, he helps bring it along, working hand-in-hand with designers and technicians.

“He gets deeply involved in the design of these projects,” Melvin says.

Three months after its December 1998 launch, PlayStation logged 580 miles to break the 24-hour speed record, which Fossett would best in 2001 at 687 miles. That bar has since been passed, as has as his round-the-world mark of 58 days, 9 hours, 32 minutes, 45 seconds and his west-to-east trans-Atlantic record of 4 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes, 6 seconds, which was 44 hours better than the old time. Those are “the big three” records in sailing, but he holds or has held others, including around Ireland and Great Britain, Plymouth to La Rochelle, around the Isle of Wight, the Fastnet course, Newport to Bermuda, and around Ireland.

It took six tries for Fossett to become the first person to balloon around the world alone, in 2002. Three years later, he circumnavigated solo in a jet without refueling. He also swam the English Channel and competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and a Le Mans auto race.

Melvin says many of the records came with great difficulty. “The thing I learned most from [Fossett] is perseverance,” he says. “When he’d endeavor to do these adventurous records — things people thought he was crazy to do — he’d try half a dozen times. He tried a half-dozen times to go around the world [in a balloon]. He kept failing, but he kept hammering away at it until he did it — with the right meteorology, a little luck and a lot of preparation.” His latest interest: setting a new land speed record. He had planned to start testing his Spirit of America Sonic Arrow, a jet-powered vehicle he hoped to start racing at 200 mph and work up to 800 mph on a straightaway.

Melvin says it is that kind of focus and determination that leaves him hopeful that Fossett will turn up with another harrowing story to tell — but ready for his next project. “We’re all just hoping that Steve shows up out of the brush somewhere with a big smile on his face, as would be typical of Steve,” he says.

Two weeks after the crash, Nevada Civil Air Patrol had suspended aerial searches.