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Daredevil Steve Fossett declared dead five months after vanishing during flight
CHICAGO -- Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who risked his life seeking to set records in high-tech balloons, gliders and jets, was declared dead Friday, five months after he vanished while flying in an ordinary small plane.
The self-made business tycoon, who in 2002 became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, was last seen Sept. 3 after taking off in a single-engine plane from an airstrip near Yerington, Nev., heading toward Bishop, Calif. He was 63.
At the request of his wife, Peggy V. Fossett, a judge declared Fossett legally dead in Cook County Circuit Court as a step toward resolving the legal status of his estate, said her attorney, Michael LoVallo.
Judge Jeffrey Malak heard testimony Friday from Peggy Fossett, a family friend and a search-and-rescue expert before deciding there was sufficient evidence to declare him dead.
"It was very sad," LoVallo said, "and at first she hoped and sort of envisioned him walking down the road the next day with another story to tell. But as the days went on, she realized it wasn't going to happen as it had on other occasions when he'd had close calls."
While flight records brought him his greatest fame, Fossett, who was paunchy for most of his life, also climbed some of the world's best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. With top-notch endurance and concentration, he swam the English Channel and completed the Boston Marathon, the Ironman Triathlon, the Iditarod dog sled race and, as part of a team, the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race.
"Steve's lived his life to the full, and he hasn't wasted a minute of his life," Fossett's rival-turned-comrade, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, had said as the search went on. "Everything he's done, he's taken a calculated risk with."
But Fossett was on a pleasure flight when he vanished and not looking for a dry lake bed to use as a surface on which to set the world land speed record, as was initially reported, according to his wife's petition.
Dozens of planes and helicopters spent more than a month searching the rugged western Nevada mountains before the effort was called off as winter approached.
"It's a huge void right now for all of us," said John Kugler, a close friend of Fossett and a member of his balloon team. "Even though you have the court decision, he's still gone, he's still missing."
The search area covered 20,000 square miles, and according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, about 15 to 20 private planes have vanished in the area since 1950. In 2005, wreckage was found in Kings Canyon National Park from a plane that went down during World War II.
"If that's OK for Mrs. Fossett, if that will help her continue her life, I'm glad for her," said Gary Derks, the Nevada Department of Public Safety official who oversaw the extensive search efforts for Fossett last year. "I do hope that ultimately we will find Mr. Fossett and we can bring official closure to this whole case."
Snow covers much of the area where Fossett's plane may have gone down. As weather permits in coming months, volunteer search efforts are expected to resume.
LoVallo said Mrs. Fossett would like to recover the remains "and really find out what happened." Plans are to resume a recovery search in the spring.
A Stanford University graduate with a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Fossett went to Chicago to work in investments and founded his own firm, Marathon Securities. The fortune he amassed allowed him to take his childhood fascination with exploration to extremes -- he once said he drew up a list of feats he wanted to accomplish and started checking them off.
"Business is much easier for me," he told The Washington Post in a 1987 interview. "Sports is often very humiliating, because there are so many better athletes in these events. I would like to be the best in everything, but that's not possible. I risk humiliation because I have a genuine interest in participating."
In 2004, Fossett and his crew broke the round-the-world sailing record by six days. He even set world records for cross-country skis, according to his Web site.
But he was best known for his aerial exploits, first in ballooning, more recently in airplanes.
Beginning in the 1980s, teams led by Fossett, Branson and others used steadily improving technology to try to best each other and their predecessors in a series of ever-longer balloon flights. In January 1997 alone, there were three failed attempts, including a solo attempt by Fossett and a try by a crew led by Branson, the flashy founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways.
In 2002, after years of trying, Fossett became the first person to fly nonstop around the world alone in a balloon, setting the record on his sixth attempt. It took him two weeks to float 19,428.6 miles around the Southern Hemisphere.
Three years later, in March 2005, he was first to fly a plane solo around the world without stopping or refueling, covering 23,000 miles in 67 hours in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer jet.
Solo flights represent the ultimate challenge, he told The Associated Press when the GlobalFlyer was introduced in 2004.
"They become more of an endurance endeavor, and become focused on the ability and the performance of a single person," he said.
Fossett made nearly as many headlines for his narrow escapes as he did for his successes. In 1998, during one of his solo around-the-world attempts, his balloon ripped during a storm, sending him plunging 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea. Falling at about 2,500 feet per minute, Fossett blacked out.
He said his next memory was "waking up with the capsule upside down, half full of water and on fire."
He was fished out by the crew of a schooner and was still on the ship when Branson called to invite him on another round-the-world attempt later that year, this time as part of a team. It ended in another dramatic rescue.
Branson, Fossett and Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand made it more than halfway before poor wind conditions forced them to ditch in the shark-infested waters off Honolulu on Christmas Day 1998. The Coast Guard spent about $130,000 sending planes, helicopters and a boat to rescue the trio.
Fossett pressed on because of his thirst for accomplishments, and for all his close calls, those who knew him well said he wasn't reckless. Fossett once said the most dangerous thing he ever did was fall off his bicycle in Chicago without a helmet on.
"I'm doing these things for personal accomplishment, not the thrills," he told Stanford's alumni magazine in 1997, after his second around-the-world balloon attempt ended in India. "I don't do these things because I have a death wish."
Many of Fossett's recent adventures were financed with help from Branson, who is now teaming with renowned aerospace designer Burt Rutan to begin sending paying civilians into space within a few years.
As high as he flew, Fossett had no desire to take a ride into space.
"I really wouldn't want to go unless I get to be the pilot," Fossett told the AP in 2007. "I'm not a passenger type of person."
Born in Jackson, Tenn., in 1944, Fossett grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., and climbed his first mountain as a 12-year-old Boy Scout and got his pilot's license in college.
On a fraternity dare in 1965, his senior year at Stanford, he swam to Alcatraz and tried to hang a "Beat Cal" banner on the wall of the island prison, which had closed two years earlier.
"I got it up there, briefly," he told the alumni magazine. "Then a security guard pushed me offshore. Luckily, my frat brothers were following behind me in a fishing boat with a keg of beer."
Fossett was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July. He told a crowd gathered at the Dayton Convention Center in Ohio that he would continue flying and planned to go to Argentina later in the year in an effort to break a glider record.
"I imagine that when I'm 80 years old and sitting in a wheelchair that I might do something like take a remote control airplane and try and flight it around the world," he told CNN last year. "I plan to be setting and breaking records indefinitely."
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Associated Press writer Joe Danborn in New York contributed to this report.