Authorities worried Monday that a call for private volunteers to help the government search the rugged Nevada wilderness for missing aviator Steve Fossett may attract people who don't have proper training and could ultimately need saving themselves.
A private search effort is being driven in part by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, who has opened the mile-long airstrip at his Flying M Ranch — the same runway Fossett took off from a week ago — to search planes and helicopters. On Sunday, a notice was posted on Fossett's Web site calling for pilots, helicopters and volunteers to supplement the search.
While the private effort has worked side by side with the government during the eight-day hunt, officials said they are becoming worried that the latest call for volunteers could bring in people who have no experience with combing the vast — and often dangerous — landscape.
"It has not been condoned, nor is it necessarily helpful to the law enforcement community," Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford said Sunday. "We don't want searchers to have to go out to look for searchers."
On Monday, Sanford explained he was most concerned with the possibility that untrained searchers would begin conducting independent ground searches in the rugged, sparsely populated areas where Fossett is believed to be lost. Government-backed searchers also have followed false leads submitted by people looking at satellite images of the area available on the Internet, he said.
Sanford said Monday that a lack of oversight sometimes leads to the official search effort covering ground already searched by the private effort. He said the private effort was still welcome, but noted that it is "impossible to track."
Officials also expressed concern that participants in the National Championship Air Races and Air Show in nearby Reno starting Wednesday could hamper the search effort. They pleaded with race participants and other pilots attending the event to stay away from the search area.
An expert survivalist
The 63-year-old Fossett, a former commodities trader who was the first to circle the globe in a balloon, was last heard from Sept. 3, when he took off from Hilton's ranch. Authorities believe he was carrying only one bottle of water, but he is considered an expert pilot and survivalist.
"I am confident in his ability to survive this," said Civilian Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan.
The search would continue indefinitely, she said, adding that the effort will stop when searchers have "exhausted every square inch, and we aren't even close to that."
Fossett's wife, Peggy, praised the joint effort, calling it "an incredible collaboration." In a statement, she said, "Our hopes are high and I am confident of a successful resolution to this search.
"I am indebted to the numerous friends who have come from around the world to serve as pilots, spotters and ground crew and who are giving genuine moral support during this difficult time."
Hilton has declined to comment to The Associated Press, and pilots and ground crew at the ranch also declined to talk to a reporter who visited.
Since Saturday, two government helicopters have been based at Hilton's ranch, authorities said. The airstrip is about 80 miles southeast of Reno.
Once used to entertain high-rolling gamblers from Hilton casinos in Las Vegas, the Flying M Ranch has become a coveted getaway for aviators and astronauts. To get there by road, one must take a 26-mile journey over a dirt road that offers a view of mile after mile of sagebrush, rocks and sand.