CHICAGO (AP) — Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who risked his life seeking to set records in high-tech balloons, gliders and jets, was declared dead yesterday, 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.
His wife, Peggy V. Fossett, had him declared legally dead in Cook County Circuit Court as a step toward resolving the legal status of his estate. Judge Jeffrey Malak heard testimony yesterday from Mrs. Fossett, a family friend and a search-and-rescue expert before deciding there was sufficient evidence to declare him dead.
Mr. Fossett earned millions of dollars trading futures and options on Chicago exchanges. Attorneys representing his estate had filed a petition to have him declared legally dead so his assets could be distributed according to his will.
While flight records brought him his greatest fame, Mr. 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. (Everest did elude him.) 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 Richard Branson, had said as the search went on. “Everything he’s done, he’s taken a calculated risk with.”
But Mr. 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.
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.
A Stanford University graduate with a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Mr. 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.