Friday, September 07, 2007

Friends Call Missing Aviator Resourceful

Published: September 7, 2007

MINDEN, Nev., Sept. 6 — A few years back, after six friends climbed Granite Peak in Montana, five of them pulled off their helmets to pose for a summit photo. The one who did not, Steve Fossett, told his friends that it was unsafe to remove the helmet, even after the climb was over.

Patrick Arbor, one of Mr. Fossett’s companions on that and many other outdoors adventures, stared at that photo, on his desk in his Chicago office, on Thursday as he wondered where the renowned adventurer might be.

Mr. Fossett, 63, who holds more than 110 aviation, boating and land-speed records, vanished Monday after taking off in a single-engine aerobatic plane for a recreational jaunt in northern Nevada. He was expected back a few hours later at the Flying M Ranch, an aviation resort owned by the hotel magnate William Barron Hilton, but never returned.

“He’s absolutely not a reckless person, he’s a very cautious, methodical person,” said Mr. Arbor, a former Chicago Board of Trade chairman who has known Mr. Fossett for more than 30 years. “I have traveled all over the world with him. I kind of joke that traveling with him is like traveling with a wandering drugstore because he travels with all kinds of antibiotics and such. He takes risks, but not reckless risks.”

Although the aircraft he flew, a blue-and-white Citabria Super Decathlon, is an aerobatic plane, friends said Mr. Fossett did not enjoy doing airplane tricks and was most likely scouting dry lake beds in the high desert region where he might try to break the land-speed record in a race car sometime in 2008.

An exhaustive air and land search for Mr. Fossett continued Thursday involving more than a dozen aircraft and more than 200 volunteers.

Gary Derks, a spokesman for the Nevada Emergency Management Division, said such searches can go on for weeks, recalling one three years ago that took more than a month before rescue crews gave up. Neither the crash victims nor their wreckage were ever found, he said.

Mr. Arbor said that he spoke Wednesday to Mr. Fossett’s wife, Peggy, who is helping direct the search from the Flying M Ranch. Mrs. Fossett, who “seemed composed until the end of our conversation,” was displeased with the search on Tuesday when high winds cut short some parts of the mission, but “felt on Wednesday it was going much better,” Mr. Arbor said. The Fossetts, married more than 39 years, have no children.

In addition to planes with infrared detection capable of searching at night and boats prowling nearby Walker Lake with sonar, a plane from the Utah Wing of the Civil Air Patrol arrived Wednesday with equipment capable of collecting hyperspectral and panchromatic images far more detailed than plain sight or ordinary photography can gather.

Rick Cronk, a friend of Mr. Fossett’s and president of the Boy Scouts of America, said it was discouraging that there had been no contact despite word that Mr. Fossett had a watch with global positioning capabilities and a plane with an electronic beacon. Mr. Fossett, chairman of the National Eagle Scouts Association, is “among the most resourceful people I know,” he said.

“He knows what to do,” Mr. Cronk said. “You don’t move. You stay put so people can find you. You draw attention to yourself by setting a fire or drawing straight lines in the desert, doing something man-made. You have to be creative.”

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