Steve Fossett has survived a nearly 30,000-foot plunge in a crippled balloon, a dangerous swim through the frigid English Channel and days stranded in shark-infested seas.
But on Wednesday, the 10th day of a search that has turned up no sign of the record-setting aviator, doubts grew as to whether he lived through whatever happened after he took off in a tiny plane on what was to have been a short flight over the unforgiving Nevada wilderness and failed to return.
A trained outdoorsman such as Fossett should have managed to signal rescuers with the emergency beacon from his single-engine plane, a specially equipped wristwatch he carried or some cruder means, perhaps a fire or a massive X made of rocks or sticks, survival experts following the search said Tuesday.
"There's no news of him signaling for help and that's a problem," said David McMullen of Berkeley, Calif., a leader of the hiking group Desert Survivors, whose members frequently venture into some of the country's harshest terrain. "He's either so injured he can't signal or he's perished."
Fossett, 63, a former commodities trader who was the first to circle the globe solo in a balloon, was last heard from Sept. 3 after taking off from a private airstrip about 80 miles southeast of Reno. Authorities believe he was carrying only one bottle of water.
Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol said Tuesday she's still betting on his "sheer grit and determination."
"We still find people against all odds," said Ryan, who said she was not concerned by a lack of a signal. "Maybe he's got a couple of broken arms and can't signal."
Such injuries would worsen his chances of finding the scarce water sources in the 17,000-square-mile search area -- about twice the size of New Jersey. People can go only two or three days without water in the summer, experts say, and Fossett would be hard-pressed to find water in unfamiliar country, even if he were in good health.
Nevada, the driest state in the nation with less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, is coming off an unusually dry winter. Stream flows usually diminish by the late summer even in wet years.
"At this point, you'd be lucky to find him alive," said Lee Bergthold, director of the Palmdale, Calif.-based Center for Wilderness Studies and a former Marine Corps survival instructor. "No food, that's not a problem. No water, that's a problem. That's a harsh desert out there."
Temperatures in the search area have been in the 80s and 90s, with lows in the 50s and 60s. Fossett wouldn't have faced the bitter cold and snow, but he also couldn't melt snow and ice for water. Shelter from the sun would be just as important as water to Fossett had he survived the crash, added McMullen of the Desert Survivors.
McMullen was stranded with a severely sprained ankle for three nights in Death Valley National Park in September 2001. He hunkered down in the shade of a fig tree before he was rescued by a military helicopter, with the help of a detailed itinerary he had left his wife.
"You'll lose water faster than you can absorb it in heat, and that's why a shelter is so important," McMullen said.
He and other survival experts faulted Fossett for not filing a flight plan, which might have allowed searchers to focus on a smaller area.
"The itinerary I filed for my 2001 hike saved my life," McMullen said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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