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Tip from Air Force spurs new search

CARSON CITY — Searchers relying on new data from Air Force experts plan to send planes and ground crews to a rugged area near Death Valley this weekend to look for famed aviator Steve Fossett, missing since Sept. 3.

The state Department of Public Safety official in charge of the search said the area stretches about 100 miles to the southeast from where Fossett took off, an airstrip on a ranch owned by hotel mogul Barron Hilton. Fossett had been staying at the million-acre ranch.

Gary Derks declined to be more specific about the search area to keep outsiders from interfering. But maps show that the area would include Nevada’s Silver Peak Range, close to Death Valley National Park in California.

“There’s nothing definite, nothing concrete,” Derks said. “These are just some hits that we want to track.”

Derks said a team of Air Force experts analyzing images picked up by radar and satellite spent Monday and Tuesday going over such data developed during the search for Fossett and “picked up what could be Mr. Fossett, his track.”

“It gives us an idea, if it’s him, what direction he was going,” Derks said. “But it also shows he went down below the radar track.” That is below 2,000 feet.

The search area is “very rough terrain,” Derks said. “If he’s there, he’s going to be hard to see. That’s why we’re sending in the ground search-and-rescue crews, too.”

Civil Air Patrol planes will fly over the area on Saturday and Sunday, and National Guard aircraft might be used, Derks said. The ground crews will be organized by local sheriffs in a three-county area.

Besides the plan for the weekend search, a plane with sophisticated camera gear flew out of the Hilton ranch Tuesday to take aerial photos that can be analyzed later. That is part of a private search effort by Fossett’s family and friends.

The combined search efforts are much reduced from the initial hunt that at times put 30 or more planes and helicopters into the air scouring some 20,000 square miles, but Derks and Hilton spokesman Pat Barry said nobody is giving up.

“While the assets aren’t being devoted as they were in the last two weeks, the search continues, and the people behind the search won’t rest until they find him,” Barry said.

Derks said the daily state search, which has incurred costs of more than $600,000, was being suspended, but any time new information surfaces, planes and ground crews will go out again.

“We will continue to put people on the ground and in the air until such a time as we have located the aircraft,” Derks said.

“But we’re not going to send planes up just because it’s the thing to do,” he said. “We’re starting into nearly a month now” since Fossett’s disappearance.

Fossett, 63, has not been seen since he took off in a single-engine plane from Hilton’s ranch about 80 miles southeast of Reno.

The trip was supposed to have been a short ride in the lightweight, acrobatic plane to scout locations for an attempt to break the land speed record.

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