September 5, 2007 / 5:03 PM / in 12 years

UPDATE 2-Branson hopes Google images help find Fossett

(Adds details of Wedmesday search)

By William Albright

RENO, Nev., Sept 5 (Reuters) - The search for missing U.S. adventurer Steve Fossett resumed on Wednesday as his friend, British billionaire Richard Branson, tried to find him through a satellite mapping service offered by Internet data provider Google.

Branson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. he was worried that Fossett, who disappeared over the Nevada desert after taking off in a small plane late on Monday, had not activated the aircraft’s emergency tracking beacon.

“I’m talking with friends at Google (GOOG.O) about seeing whether we can look at satellite images over the last four days to see whether they can see which direction he might have been flying and whether they can see any disturbances anywhere that they can pin from space,” he said from Barcelona, Spain.

The company’s Google Earth product offers a mapping service using satellite imagery.

The state wing of the Civil Air Patrol resumed its search on Wednesday, focusing on a 600-square mile (1,554-sq-km) area south of the airstrip used by Fossett about 80 miles (128 km) southeast of Reno, Nevada.

Three helicopters and six airplanes are involved in the mission. One of the airplanes is a Utah Civil Air Patrol aircraft with imaging technology that quickly distinguishes man-made objects, including aircraft wreckage, from natural objects.

On Tuesday 13 aircraft looked in vain for signs of Fossett’s plane in the Nevada desert and mountains. Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol said on Wednesday electronic transmissions received on Tuesday and suspected of coming from a downed aircraft were “bogus” signals.

Branson has teamed up with Fossett on several aviation adventures and his Virgin company underwrote the U.S. aviator’s successful first solo nonstop flight around the world in 2005.

“He’s not only the greatest aviator in the world, he’s also the greatest gliding pilot in the world ... I’m very confident that he would have got the plane down in one piece as long as the terrain below him was desert and not mountainous hills or woods or rocks,” Branson said.

“Having said that, obviously we’re worried (about) the fact that there’s been no emergency beacon go off ... He could be injured which means the emergency services have just got to get to him as soon as possible.”

Authorities said Fossett, 63, had planned to scout sites in the Nevada desert for an attempt to set a world land speed record, a bid that Branson described as highly dangerous.

“In fact, I’ve personally tried to dissuade him out of this particular record because there are extreme risks attached to it,” he said.

Fossett, who was piloting a plane with enough fuel for four or five hours of flight, earned his fortune as a financial trader. In 2002 he became the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world.

Branson said it would be ironic if Fossett — whose balloons were twice forced down in the Pacific — had run into trouble on what was supposed to be a routine flight.

“If you look at the history of adventurers, it is so often the simple things (that cause trouble) ... Lawrence of Arabia went through everything and was then killed in a motorbike accident when he’d given up all his dangerous pursuits in Arabia,” he said. (Additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by David Wiessler; Reuters Messaging:; 613 235 6745))

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