Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett vanished somewhere across a landscape of soaring peaks and sagebrush desert notorious for winds so powerful and tricky they can swirl an airplane like a leaf and even shear off a wing.
As the search for Fossett dragged into a second day Wednesday with some false leads but no sign of the 63-year-old aviator or his plane, some veteran pilots speculated he may have fallen victim to the treacherous and sometimes deadly Sierra Nevada winds that squeeze through the narrow canyons.
“There’s been times when I’ve been flying in the wind and my blood turns cold,” said Adam Mayberry, a private pilot and former spokesman for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
Fossett, who over the years risked his life circling the globe in a hot-air balloon and an experimental lightweight aircraft, disappeared after taking off from a private airstrip Monday in an ordinary single-engine plane to scout sites for an attempt at a land-speed record in a rocket-propelled car.
Crews from three states searched by air and land over an area the size of Connecticut, marked by rugged mountains jutting to 10,000 feet.
Fossett’s plane, a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, had a locator device that sends a satellite signal after a rough landing, but no such signal had been received.
Fossett always wears a Breitling Emergency wristwatch that allows pilots to turn a knob and immediately signal their location, said Granger Whitelaw, a fellow pilot and a co-founder of the Rocket Racing League. But no such signal was activated.
Authorities said at one point they thought they had spotted Fossett’s plane and sent in a helicopter crew to confirm.
“We thought we had it nailed,” Nevada Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan told reporters late Wednesday. “Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of many dozen unmapped wreck sites from previous years.”
Wind gusts in the area can whip up without warning from any direction, with sudden downdrafts that can drag a plane clear to the ground. Passengers flying even on commercial airliners between Las Vegas and Reno know to keep their seat belts fastened for a ride that is never smooth.
Mark Twain wrote about the “Washoe Zephyr” — named for the Nevada county — in the book “Roughing It.”
“But, seriously, a Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, rolls up tin ones like sheet music, now and then blows a stagecoach over and spills the passengers,” he wrote.
In 1999, three well-known glider pilots were killed in two separate accidents after taking off from the Minden airport.
Donald D. Engen, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, died along with the former president of a gliding organization after their sailplane broke apart and fell 4,000 feet. And nationally ranked glider pilot Clem Bowman died when his glider plummeted 100 feet shortly after takeoff.
Nevertheless, Ryan said she doubts any sudden wind burst would have caught Fossett by surprise on Monday. The weather report indicates the winds were calm, and it was “just a really delightful day to go flying.”
Moreover, “he knows mountain flying, which is an art in and of itself,” Ryan said.
Friends remain optimistic
And while Fossett was a record-seeker, those who knew him said he would not take unnecessary risks.
“He’s not that kind of pilot. He’s not a crop-duster. He never was,” said Rick Blakemore, a veteran pilot and former Nevada state senator.
Authorities said the airplane carried food, water and other survival gear, and estimated Fossett could survive at least a week.
“He’s the No. 1 gliding pilot in the world, as well as the No. 1 aviator in the world. If anybody could have glided down, it would have been him,” Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire who has helped finance many of Fossett’s adventures, said in London. “But obviously, it’s extremely worrying that it’s lasted three days.”
Branson said he and others were working with Google Inc. to study pictures from space that might help them determine the plane’s direction and “whether there was anything unusual.”