Without a Trace

From our March 2008 issue: Last Labor Day, Steve Fossett—the investment wizard turned record-setting adventurer—took off in a plane from a remote Nevada airfield. He hasn’t been seen since. Our reporter retraces the search for Fossett, while examining the theories behind his disappearance—and behind his frequent attempts to defy death

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Fossett in New Zealand in 2002 after a failed attempt to break the world gliding altitude record. He finally succeeded four years later, establishing a record—50,722 feet—that still stands.

 

The plane trundled down the runway, bumping over the nubs and nicks of the remote desert airstrip, and rose on the warm late summer thermals toward a landscape of mountains as bleak and silent as a block of tombs. At the stick sat perhaps the most famous aviator since Chuck Yeager, a man who had tempted and beaten death so many times that his life seemed to be in the hands of angels. Among his best-known feats were his balloon flights, including the first solo trip around the world. There were also his airplane adventures—again, he became the first person to circle the globe nonstop. He set two transcontinental air speed records in a single day and, among dozens of other milestones, boasted the highest glider altitude (50,722 feet) and the top speed for airships. As if flying feats weren’t enough, he climbed 350 mountains, including several of the tallest peaks in the world, set sailing records, and competed in the Iditarod dog race and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

RELATED MULTIMEDIA

Fossett’s Last Flight (Interactive map)


Views from the Search Plane (Video)

He also nearly killed himself—again and again. While climbing Mount Olympus, he slipped near the summit, rocketing toward a cliff, desperately digging an ice ax into a smooth, snow-covered slab to stop the slide. When he did at last find purchase, the lower half of his body dangled over the side of the cliff like a comic book hero at the end of a white-knuckle thriller. Swimming the English Channel, he stayed in the water so long— 22 hours, 15 minutes—that he suffered hypothermia, a cracked rib, and so much saltwater in his lungs that the pH of his blood was more fish than human. On one of his balloon trips, a lack of fuel caused him to ditch in India, where he banged into a forest of 50-foot trees, then bounced into a small village. He emerged from his capsule to find himself worshiped as Hanuman, the Monkey God.

The capper came in August 1998, when he was trying yet again to circle the globe in a balloon. Sailing along at a jetliner’s cruising altitude of 29,000 feet, having traveled more than two-thirds of the way to his goal, he found himself drifting into a line of dark clouds just off the eastern coast of Australia. Suddenly, hail. Lightning. Violent winds. His balloon ruptured, and he plummeted toward the shark-infested Coral Sea. He opened up his burners. He cut away propane tanks to slow the fall. Still, he hurtled down, through the hail and lightning and thunder. The capsule plunged into the water, briefly knocking him out. It rolled over and began filling with water. He came to and scrambled into a raft under storming skies so dark he could not see to activate his locator beacon. Seventy-two hours later, a French military plane rescued him and an astonished world marveled that again he had survived.

On this day, last September 3rd—Labor Day—no such drama was anticipated. In fact, the two-hour or so pleasure flight hardly qualified as an adventure. The sun was bright. The sky was clear. The pilot, now 63, told friends he would be back in plenty of time for the daily lunch extravaganza Barron Hilton threw for the rich and famous who were guests at his Flying M Ranch. Situated in the middle of a forbidding desert wilderness, the ranch was an off-the-radar playground, a redoubt as clandestine as a top-secret military base. Among its other amenities was an airstrip that could accommodate both corporate jets and the fleet of planes Hilton kept on hand for fellow aviation enthusiasts.

For his pleasure flight, the pilot had chosen Hilton’s Bellanca Super Decathlon, a single- engine two-seater made of fabric and steel tubing, a sort of glorified barnstorming stunt plane. The aircraft was capable of acrobatics, but the pilot had no intention of loop-the-loops, or any other fancy maneuvers. For all his adventuring, he wasn’t after mindless thrills.

The engine buzzed. The craft soared into the blue, banking slightly left toward the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. On the ground, friends watched the plane grow smaller and smaller until, at last, it stood as a speck against a swath of blue. The pilot’s precise destination was unknown, but if his past proclivities held, he would almost certainly cross a favorite spot, a canyon that cut through the mountains like a mammoth city boulevard. Only later would the name of the place assume the deep irony that, in retrospect, would come to dominate nearly every aspect of this flight. The last journey of Steve Fossett, the “Greatest Adventurer Alive,” the world’s most famous pilot, the man who had made a career of cheating death, likely led straight through Lucky Boy Pass.

 

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