Millionaire adventurer set world air, sea records

Times Staff Writer

Steve Fossett, the multimillionaire aviation and sailing world record holder who has been missing since taking off alone in a single-engine plane from a private Nevada airstrip in early September, was declared legally dead Friday by an Illinois court. He was 63.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Malak ruled that there was sufficient evidence to declare Fossett dead after he heard testimony from Fossett's wife, Peggy, as well as from an expert on search and rescue operations.

Fossett's wife first petitioned the court on Nov. 27 to declare Fossett dead -- a step toward resolving the legal status of Fossett's estate, which was described in court papers as "vast, surpassing eight figures in liquid assets, various entities and real estate."

The Fossetts had been married since the late 1960s.

Steve Fossett, who amassed his fortune trading options in the Chicago commodities market, gained his greatest renown for his historic balloon and airplane flights.

He was the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world and was the first pilot to circle the globe solo in an aircraft without stopping or refueling.

The exhaustive search along the Nevada-California border for the high-profile adventurer, which was described by the Civil Air Patrol as one of the largest efforts to locate a missing plane in modern history, was formally suspended on Oct. 2.

Fossett was reported missing after taking off on what he had said would be a short morning flight from hotel magnate and aviation enthusiast William Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, some 60 miles southeast of Carson City toward Bishop, Calif.

Before taking off in a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon -- one of the aircraft kept at the ranch -- Fossett reportedly told friends that he wanted to search for a dry lake bed suitable for his next goal: breaking the land speed record in a vehicle powered by a turbojet engine that could reach 800 mph.

British billionaire-adventurer Richard Branson, a one-time rival who partnered with Fossett and Per Lindstrand in a failed 1998 attempt to make the first nonstop round-the-world flight in a three-man balloon, once described Fossett as "a sort of half-android, half-Forrest Gump."

In a first-person appreciation of his missing friend for Time magazine in October, Branson described Fossett as "one of the most generous, good-natured and kind people I have ever met, but also one of the bravest and most determined adventurers and explorers of all time."

Fossett set 116 records in sailboats, powered aircraft, balloons, airships and gliders.

He also swam the English Channel, drove in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race, competed in Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon, sailed solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, climbed Argentina's 23,000-foot Aconcagua peak and competed in Alaska's 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race, among many other accomplishments.

As Fossett told the New York Times in 1999: "The things I do are things that a lot of people would like to do. What's unusual is that I actually go out and do them."

Among Fossett's record-breaking feats was a 2004 round-the-world sailing record: a 58-day, nine-hour, 32-minute and 45-second voyage with a crew of 12 in a catamaran that broke the previous record by nearly six days.

But Fossett received his greatest acclaim for his historic solo balloon and airplane flights.

After five attempts, including one in which he crashed into the Coral Sea after his balloon ruptured, he became the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world in 2002.

Taking off from Northam, Australia, he completed the more than 20,000-mile flight in 13 days, eight hours and 33 minutes.

In 2005, it took Fossett a little more than 67 hours to become the first pilot to circle the globe solo in an aircraft nonstop and without refueling.

He traveled an average of 342 mph during the approximately 23,000-mile Kansas-to-Kansas flight in which he sat in a recliner seat and was unable to stand.

During the flight, he drank chocolate protein shakes for nourishment, went to the bathroom via a catheter and took short, infrequent catnaps.

Fossett's round-the-world solo flight, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, was conducted for the technological and human endurance challenge it presented, and no prize money was involved.

And in an age in which most aviation records are set by commercial aircraft or government-funded space missions, The Times reported, Fossett was praised by aviation enthusiasts for being a reminder of the pioneering days of aviation when daring, record-breaking pilots made front-page news and became overnight celebrities.

Indeed, a cheering crowd of some 5,000 people -- along with a high-school marching band -- greeted the then-60-year-old Fossett when he landed in Salina, Kan.

"I've wanted to do this flight for a long time," he said shortly after squeezing out of the tiny cockpit of his Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer and being sprayed with champagne by his friend Branson, who financed the project.

"I am a very lucky guy," Fossett added. "I got to achieve my ambition."

Burt Rutan, the renowned aircraft designer who built the catamaran-shaped plane with a single jet engine that Fossett flew on the historic flight, offered his summation of his friend's longtime penchant for record-setting adventures.

"Steve," he said, "is a different animal than most of us."

Fossett was born April 22, 1944, in Jackson, Tenn., and grew up in Garden Grove, where he displayed an early sense of adventure.

When he was 5 or 6, he climbed into the family's Plymouth and took it for a half-block spin, his mother, Charalee, said in a 1995 interview with The Times.

Fossett enthusiastically pursued outdoor activities.

He told The Times in 1995 that he learned mountain climbing while in a "really good Boy Scout troop."

He also hiked California's John Muir Trail alone during the summer of 1962, the year he graduated from Garden Grove High School.

The summer after graduating from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1966, he spent three months climbing mountains in Europe and swimming the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between the European and Asian portions of Turkey.

After earning an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis in 1968, he worked as a computer programmer at IBM.

He followed that by serving as a consultant for the investment banking firm Drexel Burnham and Co. and working for Marshall Field's department store in Chicago.

"For the first five years of my business career," he told Airport Journals in an article that was published in October, "I was distracted by being in computer systems, and then I became interested in financial markets. That's where I thrived."

Indeed, beginning in 1973, he became a successful commodities salesman for Merrill Lynch.

He founded his own Chicago-based firm, Lakota Trading, in 1980, followed by Marathon Securities and Larkspur Securities.

"As a floor trader, I was very aggressive and worked hard," Fossett told Stanford Magazine in 1997.

"Those same traits helped me in adventure sports."

Fossett who divided his time between homes in Beaver Creek, Colo., Carmel and Chicago, chronicled his adventures in the 2006 memoir "Chasing the Wind: The Autobiography of Steve Fossett."

The GlobalFlyer is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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