RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - U.S. millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who made record-breaking solo flights by plane and balloon, has disappeared over the Nevada desert after taking off in a small plane to scout sites for an attempt to set a world land speed record, authorities said on Tuesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Fossett, 63, was reported missing on Monday night after taking off from a ranch in a single-engine aircraft in the morning.
The FAA said the Californian did not file a flight plan, and one was not required. It said Fossett had not been in communication with air traffic controllers and no distress signal had been received.
“It’s rough, mountainous terrain there, there are not a lot of roads out there, rocky; picture if you will Afghanistan,” Commander Douglas Russell of the Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada told Reuters.
At a news conference at Minden-Tahoe Airport about 47 miles
south of Reno, officials said 13 aircraft were searching the desert for Fossett’s plane. But increasing winds could cause the search to be called off for the day.
“As far as we know it’s still a search mission,” said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia S. Ryan.
Fossett spokesman Stuart Radnofsky said Fossett had been visiting the Flying M Ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, which he described as a popular sport flying center near Smith Valley, about 80 miles south of Reno.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who teamed with Fossett on some ventures and underwrote his successful global plane flight, said Fossett was scouting dry lake beds as locations for a future attempt to set a world land speed record.
“Steve is a tough old boot. I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now for someone to pick him up,” Branson said in a statement released in London.
“Based on his track record, I feel confident we’ll get some good news soon.”
Fossett was piloting a Citabria Super Decathlon, a plane capable of aerobatics, with enough fuel for four or five hours of flight.
Fossett, who earned his fortune as a financial trader, in 2002 became the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world and in 2005 achieved the first solo non-stop flight around the world in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer aircraft.
Last year Fossett flew solo in the GlobalFlyer to set the absolute non-stop distance record for any aircraft and set a new glider world altitude record with co-pilot Einar Enevoldson.
Fossett has also competed in endurance competitions, swam the English Channel and set numerous world records in sailing.
Ron Kaplan, executive director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, which enshrined Fossett in May, said Fossett was not a daredevil. Rather, Fossett was a careful aviator who took advantage of advances in aviation technology to chase records.
“He never seems to stop looking for the next challenge,” Kaplan told Reuters. “He harkens back to the golden age of flight between the world wars when there was a multitude of records to be broken because of advances in technology.”
Additional reporting by Jim Christie and Adam Tanner in San Francisco and John Crawley in Washington