LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Rescuers were Friday clinging to the hope that Steve Fossett's legendary survival skills would enable the aviator to hold out until he is found as the daunting search for the missing adventurer entered its fifth day.
The 63-year-old veteran of several world record-breaking solo plane and balloon flights has not been heard from since taking off from a private airstrip 80 miles (130 km) southeast of Reno, Nevada, early Monday.
On Thursday officials expanded the area of remote, mountain terrain being searched to 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers), and have said the search for the airman is like "looking for a needle in a haystack."
But despite the difficult nature of the manhunt, which has forced spotter planes to make multiple, painstaking passes over a landscape populated by sharp mountain peaks and jagged, twisting canyons, rescuers remain optimistic Fossett may yet be found alive.
"He's a survivalist," said Nevada State Police spokesman Chuck Allen. "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 co-operating -- it's not been too cold at night, not too hot in the daytime. If he's not too immobilized for any reason we're confident he can survive in the elements outside."
Fossett has survived numerous near-misses and harrowing crash landings over the years, including a 29,000-foot (9,000-meter) plummet into the Coral Sea off Australia because of a storm-shredded balloon.
Allen said rescuers did not believe Fossett had packed food and water on board his plane because he had only been planning a three-hour flight. However there were several natural water sources in the area being searched, he said.
"There are a number of mountain lakes when you get up into the Sierras, dozens of lakes, streams and creeks," he said.
On Thursday, Nevada Civil Air Patrol spokeswoman Major Cynthia Ryan warned it could be weeks before Fossett is found.
"Searches of this nature -- typically, they can go on for as long as two weeks and longer," Ryan said. "We are still scratching the surface."
Asked if rescuers believed Fossett could still be found alive, Ryan cited a case where a pilot was found after a hunt lasting several days.
"I think it was three days into the search, they finally found the target and the pilot was still hanging upside down in his harness, and a tree, quite alive," Ryan said.
Fossett's single-engine Bellanca aircraft was equipped with an electronic tracking device designed to be triggered in the event of a rough landing, but it has not been activated.
Fossett made the first solo nonstop, non-refueled 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.