Steve Fossett, 63; Adventurer of the Seas and Skies

Steve Fossett was declared dead five months after he vanished from the skies over Nevada. He was known for his globe-circling, nonstop flights.
Steve Fossett was declared dead five months after he vanished from the skies over Nevada. He was known for his globe-circling, nonstop flights. (By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Steve Fossett, 63, an American millionaire who financed many of his own record-setting adventures over the seas and into the skies, was declared legally dead Feb. 15 by a Chicago judge, five months after he disappeared while piloting a single-engine plane over western Nevada.

Mr. Fossett, known for his globe-circling, nonstop flights by airplane and balloon, was reported missing Sept. 3. He last was seen taking off from an airstrip owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton near Yerington, Nev., on what was supposed to be a two-hour pleasure flight.

After exhaustive searches failed to find any traces of him or the plane in the rugged terrain, Peggy Viehland Fossett petitioned a court in November to declare her husband dead. On Friday, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Malak heard testimony from Peggy Fossett, a family friend and a search-and-rescue expert, according to the Associated Press, and decided that evidence was sufficient for the death declaration. Mr. Fossett lived in Chicago and Beaver Creek, Colo.

As an aviator, sailor and hot-air balloon navigator, Mr. Fossett achieved dozens of records for speed, altitude and distance in the past 10 years. In July, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He also set 23 official world records in sailing.

In 2002, he traveled 18,827 miles to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe alone in a balloon. Last year, he not only flew an airplane solo more than 25,700 miles -- a record distance in a nonstop, non-refueled airplane -- but he also copiloted a glider to what he said was nine miles into the earth's stratosphere, a record height in that craft.

In appearance, Mr. Fossett met no one's idea of a sinewy thrill-seeker. He had a receding hairline, imperfect vision and a slightly paunchy build. He fit the physical ideal of his fortune-making first profession, Chicago commodities and options trader.

He spoke of his desire to test human endurance as an extension of all that made him a success in business -- a sense of competition and an ability to withstand intense pressure.

"Business is much easier for me," he told the Chicago Tribune. "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."

James Stephen Fossett, whose father was a soap factory manager, was born April 22, 1944, in Jackson, Tenn. He was raised in Orange County, Calif., where he was found to have asthma.

He failed to make his high school's cross-country or swim teams. But excited by spy novels about James Bond and fueled with admiration for explorers of another generation, he joined the Boy Scouts and began to hike and climb throughout California.

After entering Stanford University in 1962, he spent college vacations seeking adventure abroad. He scaled some of the most difficult mountains in the Swiss Alps and nearly killed himself on the Eiger when he slipped hundreds of feet down a glacier.

After finishing Stanford, he completed a master's degree in business administration from St. Louis's Washington University in 1968. He became a millionaire trading soybeans on the commodities market for the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch. He also worked for the billionaire Hunt brothers of Texas before going into business for himself as an options trader. He eased into semi-retirement by the early 1990s but remained heavily involved in markets nationwide.

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