HAWTHORNE, Nev. A year after aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett vanished on a Labor Day solo flight over western Nevada, friends and admirers are waging a new search for some sign of him in an area of rugged mountains.
Steep canyons and gulches choked by concealing trees and brush on the west slope of the Wassuk Range are being combed by 28 searchers headed by explorers Robert Hyman, Lew Toulmin and Bob Atwater.
They're relying in part on new information from another pilot who was in the area that day that alters earlier assumptions about Fossett's likely path on what was supposed to have been a short flight. He had flown over the area many times since the mid-1990s and once hiked to the top of the Wassuk Range's 11,239-foot Mount Grant.
"This is the right thing to do," Hyman said in a weekend interview at the search team's isolated camp. "Explorers don't leave fellow explorers lost. ... We want to find out what happened to our friend and colleague, no more and no less."
The main search area is just west of Hawthorne and only 10 to 15 miles from the Flying M Ranch of longtime Fossett friend and wealthy hotel magnate Barron Hilton, where Fossett had borrowed a plane for his flight.
The terrain was flown over repeatedly last fall in what was described as the largest aerial search for a downed plane in U.S. history the Nevada National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol scoured 20,000 square miles and also was extensively searched on the ground.
However, Hyman said there's a lot of area that didn't get close scrutiny.
"While I feel he's under our nose here, he's in an area that's extremely hard to get to. It's the vertical terrain, it's the dark terrain, and it's the trees, the vegetation," Hyman said.
"If that aircraft didn't go straight down and kind of angled in under a stand of pine trees, it's going to take someone physically walking upon that scene to find it," said Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford.
"It's hard to believe in this day and age that someone could disappear like this until you go up in an aircraft and look at how rough the terrain is. It's absolutely amazing," said Sanford.
The difficulty of finding Fossett's wreck prompts comparisons to pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on an around-the-world flight attempt in 1937.
"They're both incredibly inspiring people," Toulmin said, adding: "If we don't find Steve Fossett, people are going to be coming out here for the next 50 years until he is found."
Fossett, 63, was declared legally dead by a judge in February. The multimillionaire's widow, Peggy Fossett, issued a statement supporting the latest effort, one of three private, self-funded searches this year. She spent $1 million on last year's search efforts. That's in addition to more than $1.6 million in costs to Nevada state agencies.
Toulmin and Hyman are hopeful about their efforts which began Aug. 23 and will continue until Sept. 10 because they were able to narrow their search thanks to new information from a local pilot who was flying over the area the same day Fossett vanished.
Toulmin said that pilot confirmed his flight path appeared to match a radar trace previously believed to have been made by Fossett's plane. The initial assumption prompted speculation that Fossett had flown farther east, possibly circling around Mount Grant. But with the new information, Hyman said his team was able to focus on a smaller area to the west.
Hyman also has utilized a new NASA computer program that helps to visualize the land under a plane's route.
He said he and Toulmin had found accounts of crashes of similar small planes that ended up as wreckage no bigger than "a window-unit air conditioner or the size of a shopping cart or a washing machine. It could just be scattered debris."
Canadian geologist and adventure racer Simon Donato led a weeklong search in July, and says that if the current effort in the Wassuk Range isn't successful he's already making plans for another search next year. Separately, Mike Larson and Kelly Stephenson of Carson City have been riding ATVs and hiking southwest of Hawthorne for several months on their days off.
Fossett, who made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets, set records in airplanes, balloons, gliders and boats, was the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world's best-known peaks.
On the Net:
Explorers Club: www.explorers.org/
Steve Fossett Challenges: www.stevefossett.com/