By BRENDAN RILEY
CARSON CITY — As the hunt continued Friday for Steve Fossett, missing since Sept. 3, 2007, a federal agency released a report stating that the famed aviator-adventurer was last seen in the search area flying less than 100 feet above the ground in a borrowed plane.
The National Transportation Safety Board report also notes that the single-engine plane Fossett borrowed from hotel magnate Barron Hilton was in a minor landing-strip accident in May 2007 after an annual inspection a month earlier.
The report says the Bellanca Super Decathlon plane ran off a runway and into a barbed-wire fence while landing. As a result of the mishap, the plane’s propeller was replaced and its engine underwent another examination.
Before Fossett, 63, took off a year ago from Hilton’s Flying M Ranch for what was to be a short pleasure flight, the report says, the Flying M’s chief pilot confirmed that the plane was full of fuel and that Fossett did a preflight check and reviewed engine-starting procedures.
The report notes that a ranch hand saw the plane about nine or 10 miles south of the ranch, 21/2 hours after takeoff and an hour before Fossett was due to have lunch with Hilton, flying east “at an altitude of less than 100 feet.”
The final confirmed sighting of the plane was near what now is the main camp of a 28-member team of explorers that started the latest search for Fossett on Aug. 23, with plans to continue until Wednesday. The camp is near Hawthorne, about 130 miles south of Reno.
Robert Hyman, who organized the latest search effort, said a broad swath of rugged mountains, canyons and gullies has been checked, but as the week drew to a close, there was no sign of Fossett or the plane.
The area, on the west slope of Nevada’s Wassuk Range, dominated by 11,239-foot Mount Grant, was flown over repeatedly last fall in what was described as the largest aerial search for a downed plane in U.S. history. An extensive ground search also was made.
But Hyman and fellow search team leaders Lew Toulmin and Bob Atwater have said there’s a lot of land that didn’t get close scrutiny.
Fossett was declared legally dead in February by a Chicago judge. The multimillionaire’s widow, Peggy Fossett, has 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. That’s in addition to more than $1.6million in Nevada government agency costs.
The latest team is relying on new information that altered earlier reports on Fossett’s likely path over familiar territory. He had flown over the area many times since the mid-1990s and once hiked to the top of Mount Grant.