Thursday, September 06, 2007

Branson hopes to trace Fossett with Google images

September 6, 2007 - 6:00AM

British billionaire Richard Branson said today he was hoping to trace Steve Fossett through a satellite mapping service offered by internet data provider Google as the search for the missing US adventurer resumed.

Branson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. he was worried that Fossett, who disappeared over the Nevada desert after taking off in a small plane late on Monday, had not activated the aircraft's emergency tracking beacon.

"I'm talking with friends at Google about seeing whether we can look at satellite images over the last four days to see whether they can see which direction he might have been flying and whether they can see any disturbances anywhere that they can pin from space," he said from Barcelona, Spain.

The company's Google Earth product offers a mapping service using satellite imagery.

The state wing of the Civil Air Patrol resumed its search on Wednesday, focusing on a 1,555-sq-km area south of the airstrip used by Fossett about 130km southeast of Reno, Nevada.

Aircraft from the Nevada Air National Guard and Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada were joining the search.

On Tuesday 13 aircraft looked in vain for signs of Fossett's plane in the Nevada desert and mountains.

Branson has teamed up with his friend Fossett on several aviation adventures and his Virgin company underwrote the US aviator's successful first solo nonstop flight around the world in 2005.

"He's not only the greatest aviator in the world, he's also the greatest gliding pilot in the world ... I'm very confident that he would have got the plane down in one piece as long as the terrain below him was desert and not mountainous hills or woods or rocks," Branson said.

"Having said that, obviously we're worried (about) the fact that there's been no emergency beacon go off ... He could be injured which means the emergency services have just got to get to him as soon as possible."

Authorities said Fossett, 63, had planned to scout sites in the Nevada desert for an attempt to set a world land speed record, a bid that Branson described as highly dangerous.

"In fact, I've personally tried to dissuade him out of this particular record because there are extreme risks attached to it," he said.

Fossett, who was piloting a plane with enough fuel for four or five hours of flight, earned his fortune as a financial trader. In 2002 he became the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world.

Branson said it would be ironic if Fossett -- whose balloons were twice forced down in the Pacific -- had run into trouble on what was supposed to be a routine flight.

"If you look at the history of adventurers, it is so often the simple things (that cause trouble) ... Lawrence of Arabia went through everything and was then killed in a motorbike accident when he'd given up all his dangerous pursuits in Arabia," he said.

High-tech computer joins hunt for adventurer Steve Fossett

An aircraft with state of the art imaging technology joined the search for aviator Steve Fossett today, two days after a plane flown by the millionaire adventurer vanished over a rugged region of Nevada.

Six aircraft and three helicopters resumed operations over 155,000 hectares of mountain terrain after failing to find any trace of Fossett during searches late Monday and yesterday.

Fossett, who has survived numerous brushes with death during a series of record-breaking solo flights around the world by balloon and aircraft, has not been heard from since taking off from a private airstrip early on Monday.

Officials say finding Fossett's possible whereabouts is "like searching for a needle in a haystack".

Rescue planes were boosted by clear skies and calm flying conditions today after being buffeted by turbulence during earlier searches.

Major Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol revealed that high-tech hyperspectral imaging equipment known as ARCHER, which is capable of distinguishing between objects on the ground, was also being deployed aboard an aircraft flown in from neighbouring Utah.

"ARCHER is essentially something used by the geosciences," Ryan said. "It's pretty sophisticated stuff ... beyond what the human eye can generally see."

Ryan said information about Fossett's plane would be input into ARCHER, which would then be able to compare the dimensions of the data to objects found on the ground.

"It might see boulders, it might see trees, it might see mountains, sagebrush, whatever, but it goes 'Not that' or 'Yes, that'," she said.

"The amazing part of this is that it can see as little as 10 per cent of the target, and extrapolate from there."

Fossett's family raised the alarm when the 63-year-old adventurer failed to return following his departure at around 9am on Monday (0200 AEST Tuesday) in a single-engine Bellanca.

Fossett's plane was equipped with an electronic tracking device designed to be activated in the event of a crash but it had not been deployed, according to rescue officials.

Ryan said earlier that officials were optimistic that Fossett could be found alive if he had survived a crash.

"He's a very savvy and methodical and determined pilot. I'd give him the highest odds," Ryan said.

Fossett made the first solo nonstop, non-refuelled circumnavigation of the world in 67 hours in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer.

In 2002, he was the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.

British tycoon Richard Branson, who partnered Fossett on earlier attempts to circle the globe in a balloon, said he was confident his friend would be found.

"If he's landed and he's not too badly hurt, he's the one person in the world who will be mentally and physically equipped to get out of it," he said.

Fossett was said to be scouting possible desert locations for an assault on the land-speed record next month during Monday's flight.

A multi-millionaire who made his fortune dealing stocks in Chicago, Fossett has spent the past two decades chasing world records and shattering them, sailing, floating and flying faster and farther than anyone before.

In 2006, he touched his aircraft down at an airfield on Britain's south coast, setting the record for the longest solo, non-stop, non-refuelled flight in terms of distance.

Pushing his flying skills and physical endurance to the limits, Fossett guided his Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer 42,000 km around the world despite a fuel leak at take-off and dangerous wind shifts.

Fossett has also set dozens of world records in sailing boats, gliders and hot air balloons.


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