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Searchers expand search for lost Steve Fossett

world Updated: Sep 07, 2007 15:37 IST

The pilots and ground crews who set out to find Steve Fossett when the famed aviator disappeared this week hoped their quest would be a short one.

It has not turned out that way. On Friday, they will return to the skies over a greatly expanded search area, having few clues where the 63-year-old adventurer and his single-engine plane might have gone down.

Despite days of frustration and false leads, the search teams are trying to remain optimistic, aware that Fossett has a Houdini-like history of escaping seemingly impossible jams.

"Each day when I walk into the operational briefing, everybody's hopeful that this will be the day that we find Mr Fossett," said Chuck Allen, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper helping lead the effort.

The search grid was expanded to 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers), an area about the size of the US state of Massachusetts, suggesting that rescuers have few clues about which direction Fossett was flying when he took off on Monday from a private airstrip about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southeast of Reno.

The terrain _ a mix of bare desert playas, ravines and mountain ranges _ makes the quest to find Fossett especially tough. Though the plane carried enough food and water for Fossett to last about two weeks, knowing he may be in trouble in a harsh landscape weighs on the crews. Pilots said the days of futility were stressful for those involved in the search.

"You wonder what they're doing down there at this time, you know, whether they're really still alive or not," said Robert Todd, one of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol pilots involved in the search. "You always hold out hope that they are alive."

A squadron of about 10 airplanes and helicopters has been making repeated passes over a search area marked by 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) peaks, steep canyons and scrub brush-covered desert. Despite the effort, there have been only a few false leads and no signals from the emergency locator beacon aboard Fossett's Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon.

Rescuers were hoping the adventurer was using his long-proven survival skills to stay alive until his plane is found. The search has generated worldwide attention because of Fossett's past exploits and his connection to British billionaire Richard Branson, who has bankrolled many of Fossett's missions. Fossett became a multimillionaire operating a series of Chicago-based investment firms before turning his attention to long-distance and high-speed adventurers. He has set 116 land and air records, including becoming the first person to circle the globe in a balloon solo and the first to do so alone in a plane without refueling.

Many of his pursuits also have ended in failure, requiring costly and daring rescues. That included a 1998 attempt to circumnavigate the globe that ended when his balloon crashed into the Coral Sea about 500 miles (805 kilometers) off Australia's coast. Search teams flew over the Black Rock Desert, site of the annual Burning Man counterculture gathering that ended last weekend. The area is a popular testing ground for high-speed vehicles. Fossett was thought to be scouting dry lake beds for a planned attempt to break the land speed record when he disappeared.

He did not file a flight plan, which is common for pilots of small airplanes. But that has made it harder to determine which direction he may have been flying.

Rescuers used sonar to search Walker Lake, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northeast of the private ranch where Fossett had been staying.

They hoped to rule it out as a possible crash site. The search was continuing throughout the night with Nevada National Guard planes and helicopters equipped with thermal imaging systems. The intensive effort could continue for two weeks or longer, Nevada Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan said. "We can't always guarantee the right result that everyone would like," she said. "But I do guarantee results."