ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
FILE PHOTO: Steve Fossett
Steve Fossett, the record-breaking balloonist and insatiable adventurer whose plane was reported missing over Nevada this week, is a man who has done more than "most of humanity ever would have dreamed."
"I half expect him to come walking out of that desert and say, 'Here I am,' " said Alan Blount, who was on the mission-control team for four of Fossett's six attempts to fly a balloon around the world nonstop.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration reported Fossett, 63, missing on Monday after the Chicago businessman took off in a single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon plane at 8:45 a.m. from a private airstrip about 70 miles southeast of Reno. Searchers were combing a rugged area of the state late Tuesday, looking for signs of his plane.
Fossett, who has homes in Chicago and Colorado, has strong ties to the St. Louis area.
Two of his around-the-world ballooning attempts were launched from Busch Stadium, and Washington University served as the control center for four of the flights, including his record-breaking round-the-world odyssey in 2002. He is a graduate of Washington University and a longtime member of the university's board of trustees. His wife is the former Peggy Viehland of Richmond Heights.
Blount called Fossett "a very hard-driving, very detail-oriented man" who is meticulous in his planning. "He knows what he's getting into; he accounts for every eventuality."
Fossett was flying alone Monday, scouting lake beds that might be suitable for an attempt to break the land speed record, according to authorities. Brian Spaeth, a family spokesman, said friends and family members remained optimistic that Fossett will be found alive.
"If anybody can come out of this, he can," Spaeth said from Chicago.
After all, Spaeth noted, Fossett once waited 72 hours before being rescued after his balloon crashed into the Coral Sea off the Australian coast.
"He really does plan out everything," Spaeth said. "He really doesn't take extreme risk. For him to disappear like this is very shocking. He was in a stunt plane, but he doesn't do stunts."
Fossett gained international notoriety on July 2, 2002, when, at age 58, he became the first person to complete a solo balloon flight around the world. After traveling nearly 21,000 miles over two weeks, Fossett landed his hot-air and helium balloon in the Australian outback. It was his sixth attempt.
The landing touched off a celebration inside Washington University's Brookings Hall, which served as mission control for the flight. His balloon capsule was transported to Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where it was displayed near Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and John Glenn's Friendship 7 spacecraft, the first manned spacecraft to circle the globe.
Fossett's quiet demeanor belied his desire to set world records and the attention he received, said F. Gilbert Bickel III, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley who worked with Fossett on Washington University's board of trustees.
"He's just one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet," Bickel said Tuesday, adding that he's confident he will see Fossett again. "Steve is a survivor."
Fossett first attempted to circle the Earth in a balloon in January 1996, when he took off from South Dakota's Black Hills and flew about 1,800 miles before landing in a field near Hampton, New Brunswick.
His second attempt, which was launched from Busch Stadium, went down in a tree in India after he traveled about 9,600 miles. After the flight, the man whose English company built Fossett's balloon, said of the pilot, "The man's made of steel. I'm thinking about getting him one of those suits of underwear you wear outside your clothes, and a cape."
After finally fulfilling his dream on his sixth attempt, Fossett remarked, "I get scared just like everyone else."
Fossett told the Post-Dispatch in November 1997 that circumnavigating the world in a balloon "is an important event for aviation, (but) it won't result in parades on Wall Street."
Indeed, his efforts didn't always attract wide attention. When he launched his third attempt on New Year's Eve 1997, less than 200 spectators and about 50 reporters attended. That flight ended prematurely 41/2 days later, when he landed near the coast of the Black Sea in a Russian wheat field. Shortly after that failure, he acknowledged that he may have to give up his attempt to circle the globe.
But the call of the sky — and the record — was too strong.
Since putting his long-distance ballooning days behind him, Fossett's drive to break records has remained strong. In 2004, he entered the history books again by sailing around the world in 58 days and nine hours, breaking the previous record by nearly six days.
Then in March 2005, Fossett overcame a serious fuel shortage to become the first person to circle the globe solo, nonstop, in an airplane. "I'm a really lucky guy," he said after the landing.
Fossett has held 117 official world records in five different sports — ballooning, airships, sailboats, gliders and jet airplanes, according to Washington University. In addition to his other accomplishments, Fossett has swum the English Channel, competed in Alaska's Iditarod dogsled competition and finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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