Clue signals end to Fossett mystery

More than a year after Steve Fossett disappeared, a hiker has discovered what appears to be his pilot's licence, leading search crews to the wreckage of his plane.

(FILES): This 23 May 2006 file photo shows US adventurer Steve Fossett posing next to his Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer aircraft after landing at the National Air and Space Musuem in Chantilly, Virginia. Like Amelia Earhart's disappearance over the Pacific Ocean 70 years ago, the riddle of Steve Fossett's whereabouts is threatening to become one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries. Fossett vanished in September 2007 after taking off in a light plane, and a long search produced no trace of him. The Post Chronicle reported on October 1,2008 that some items belonging to missing aviator Fossett were found in the Mammoth Lakes area, California .The Madera County Sheriff's Department confirmed that it is conducting a search based on information provided by a hiker that items were found. AFP PHOTO/FILES/Jim WATSON *** Local Caption ***  389367-01-08.jpg
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Even after he had pulled it from the forest floor, Preston Morrow failed to realise the significance of his find: a battered pilot's licence almost hidden by pine needles on a hiking trail high above the Californian mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. One corner had disintegrated, but the name and information could still be read. James Stephen Fossett of Chicago, Illinois. Born April 22, 1944, weight 218lb, colour of hair grey.

The discovery may signal the end of one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time - the disappearance, more than a year ago, of Steve Fossett, the wealthy adventurer who held dozens of flying records, but had not been seen since taking off in his single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon from a private airfield. Yesterday, search teams reached wreckage spotted the previous day some distance from where the documents were found and confirmed that it was Fossett's aircraft.

While crash investigators have still to confirm officially the authenticity of the papers, there seems little doubt that they belonged to Fossett, who was declared legally dead in February even though a massive search over thousands of kilometres of California and Nevada had failed to discover his remains. According to Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles: "The certificate number and date of issue on the document... matches the information we have for Mr Fossett in our database."

Over the months, the disappearance had become the subject of wild rumours and conjecture. A senior officer in the local search and rescue team openly speculated that Fossett had faked his own death. Only one witness saw him take off, in a plane constructed from a fabric-covered frame that would be particularly easy to dismantle and hide. Why, other conspiracy theorists asked, had he not packed a parachute? Why had he left behind a watch that included a crash location beacon?

Yet at the time, Fossett's final journey did not seem anything more than routine. In the past he had become the first man to make both a solo balloon flight and non-stop fixed-wing aircraft flight around the world. This was just a short hop. On the morning of Sept 3 2007 he took off on a recreational flight from a ranch owned by Barron Hilton, the hotel heir, in Smith Valley, about 120 miles south-east of Reno, Nevada. The aircraft carried enough fuel for five hours. Six hours later, when the plane had still not returned, the alert was sounded.

Fossett's fame ensured the ensuing search made headlines around the world. The 63-year-old millionaire, who made his fortune trading on the Chicago stock markets, was reported to have set 93 aviation world records and 23 sailing records during his life. He also excelled at everything from mountain climbing to cross country skiing. He had twice competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and swum the English Channel.

Born in Tennessee, Fossett claimed to have climbed his first mountain at 12, adding: "I just kept going." Sir Richard Branson, the British multimillionaire who was first his rival in the air and later became his friend and patron, described him as "only half human". One of his greatest exploits was the first round-the-world solo balloon trip in the 10-storey tall Spirit of Freedom in 2002. Three years later he piloted the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer around the world in 67 hours, one minute and 10 seconds. In between, he climbed the highest mountains on six of the seven continents. He baulked at Everest only because of his asthma.

It was no wonder that many found it difficult to accept that Fossett might be dead. Even a week after his disappearance, there were hopes that his extraordinary stamina and survival skills were keeping him alive somewhere in the desert. The search area eventually expanded to a 518,000 sq km grid, bigger than Massachusetts but filled with little more than dry ravines and scorched mountains. Dozens of aircraft criss-crossed the region, and while several previously unknown crash sites were discovered, none bore trace of Fossett. Even Google joined the search, providing the latest satellite images from its Google Earth feature for hundreds of volunteers to pore over.

By the end of the month, though, hopes had faded and the search was abandoned. A preliminary investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Fossett was "presumed fatally injured and the aircraft substantially damaged". In February, at the request of his family, Fossett was declared legally dead by a judge in Chicago. After the failure of a second search this September, it seemed likely that Fossett's disappearance would rank alongside those of Glenn Miller, the big band leader, during the Second World War and Amy Earhart, the female aviation pioneer, in the 1930s.

As it now turns out, Fossett was not found because searchers were looking in the wrong place. The original rescue mission had assumed that he had headed east towards the Black Rock Desert to look for a location to break another record, in this instance the world land speed. The region where Mr Morrow set out for his hiking trip last week was on the very fringe of the search area and more than 560km south-west of the presumed crash site. The 43-year-old salesman at a sporting goods shop was deep in the Inyo National Forest when he came across the battered documents, which included Fossett's Federal Aviation Authority ID, a gliding pilot's licence and more than US$1,000 (Dh3,637) in cash.

At the time he did not recognise the name, saying later: "My immediate thought was it was a hiker or backpacker's stuff, and a bear got to the stuff and took it away to look for food or whatever." Back in his shop, colleagues did see the significance of his discovery. After unsuccessfully trying to contact Fossett's wife, Peggy, they handed the papers over to the authorities. Of Fossett, there is still no trace. A second search by Mr Morrow and his friends discovered a black Nautica fleece.

An aerial search on Wednesday spotted the wreckage of a light aircraft among the 2,000-metre peaks. But the confirmation that it is the plane flown by Fossett raises a new potential mystery. The two sites - the crash and documents - are 16km apart. Is it possible Fossett survived the crash only to perish either from exposure or an animal attack as he attempted to reach civilisation? And what was he doing there in the first place?

After more than a year in the open, it is possible that nothing now remains of Steve Fossett beyond those fragments of paper and plastic. The race is on to conduct a more thorough search of the area, as the first winter storm of the season closes in with the threat of several feet of snow. For those closest to Fossett, the hope is that the discoveries will allow them to finally mourn the missing adventurer. In a statement, his widow said: "I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband's remains. I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort."

Andy Green, a former Royal Air Force pilot, who was working with Fossett on the world land speed record attempt, admitted that the latest news left him with mixed feelings. "I really want to know what happened to my friend Steve," Mr Green said. "But there's still a chance he might be alive somewhere if there isn't evidence of a fatal crash, so I'm a bit torn." At the same time, he said, there was a need for a definitive answer. "His widow has found it very hard, as anyone would, when your husband of many years just disappears.

"For all of [his family, I'm hopeful that finally we will have some closure on this."