By Klaus Brinkbäumer
Was he rich? Of course he was, earlier. But what about later? Was he healthy? Who was Steve Fossett?
“We don’t want to speculate. Let’s stick to the facts,” says Barron Hilton -- and the other men standing in his shadow. “That’s what we pilots do: Facts count, not speculations.”
“Steve had fuel for four hours and flew at a hundred miles an hour,” Hilton says. “Those are the facts,” adds the 80-year-old white-haired man with the cigar and the wide-open shirt, son of the hotel patriarch Conrad Hilton and grandfather of Paris Hilton. Barron Hilton is an American myth -- and an old man who misses a friend.
It was Labor Day in the United States, Monday the third of September, 8 a.m., on a clear, hot morning in the Nevada desert. It was just like it usually is when Barron Hilton has guests over. They ate cereal, scrambled eggs and bagels while sitting at two round tables in the breakfast room at the Flying M Ranch. The cook and waiters were busy, and Robin, who manages the ranch with her husband, was running the show. Hanging on the walls were photographs showing his guests as if they were walking on the moon or orbiting the Earth. Model airplanes dangled from the ceiling. Beer mugs with name tags lined the shelf. One of them bore Steve Fossett’s name.
The world that Barron Hilton reveals to a handful of guests here weekend after weekend is a dazzling one. It is playful and generous. It is powerful, technical and very masculine. Nevertheless, it is an easygoing world -- a little bit of Sinatra mixed with dash of Gatsby, though perhaps a tad less dapper. After all his friends have flown back home, Barron Hilton has photo albums mailed to them and writes short notes to thank them for coming. Usually. But not this time.
'The Most Beautiful Day of Our Lives'
The first balloonists had already made it back -- that's the schedule in Barron Hilton’s wonderland. When the sun comes up at 6 a.m., the balloons start off with the first updrafts; Steve Fossett, meanwhile, would be sitting at his computer poring over stock prices. The motorized pilots would come a bit later, Fossett in Hilton’s “Citabria Decathlon” or Tom Schrade, head of a casino in Reno, in his 1929 vintage Sikorsky S-38, the double-decker plane that Leonardo DiCaprio flew in “Aviator.” The gliders -- Bruno Gantenbrink and the others -- started out last at around noon. The basin is famous for its thermal lift.
Or they listened closely to Steve Fossett, as they had done on the evening of Sept. 2. They listened closely because, on that night, the 63-year-old Fossett again told the story of sailing around the globe in 58 days, nine hours and 32 minutes. He spoke about his non-stop flight around the world in 67 hours, one minute and 10 seconds. He talked about his other 114 world records. And he spoke about his crash, which was itself a world record. His balloon crashed down from a height of 8,500 meters (27,900 feet) into the Pacific Ocean. Fossett had been able to slow the velocity of his fall from 900 to 800 meters per minute by throwing ballast overboard. Then he lay down on his back, waited for the impact and survived. In four decades he’d survived everything -- storms, severely low temperatures, miscalculations and malfunctions.
What an amazing guy. What amazing stories. But Fossett always recounted them in a completely matter-of-fact way. He was no storyteller, he smacked his lips when he spoke and he would laugh at the wrong moments. Peggy, his wife of 39 years, would just sit behind him and say nothing. The two of them usually headed home early, and they did so on that night, too. As always, they slept in the Balloon Cottage, one of the cabins Barron had built for his friends. Inside the wooden cabin painted grayish-blue were two beds with coverlets. In the adjacent room there was a sofa and a stool. Everything was Spartan. The millionaire and the aviators love Hilton’s ranch because there -- in “this Shangri La, this magical place,” as Oscar winner Cliff Robertson puts it -- they are allowed to feel like they are camping in tents. On this weekend, there were 18 guests -- “Hilton’s Eighteen” -- big guys with a passion for aviation.
And, of course, they also loved the ranch because Nevada’s airspace is so unrestricted. It is empty countryside: mountains, valleys, a couple lakes, slender rivers, cliffs, sand, pine trees and bushes. There are bears, foxes, coyotes. There are hardly any people. The sky is vast and empty.
Setting the Next World Record
For this reason, Fossett didn’t fill out a flight plan at 8 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 3. He just rolled off the runway. There are four small hangers off to the side there, as well as a little wind sock and a fuel pump. The tar bubbles in the summer sun. Fossett didn’t even take along his watch with a tracking device. He told his wife he’d be back for lunch “before noon, honey.”
“He’s never missed a meal,” Peggy says.
Both men say they saw the blue airplane with the three white stars and three white stripes on each wing -- the agile “Decathlon,” the single-engine plane that belonged to Hilton and that Fossett liked flying so much.
Otherwise, nothing. No witnesses, no radio call, no distress signal. The transmitter, which would have automatically emitted signals in the event of a crash, remained silent. At noon, Peggy says, “I wonder where Steve is.”
Fossett’s friends flew out after noon to look for him. In the evening, Fossett was declared missing. Peggy didn’t cry. She gazed knowingly at the others as if she’d been expecting this for years. Then, what was possibly the largest search in aviation history began. The guests at Hilton's ranch found renewed respect for Hilton -- he coordinated everything and paid the lion's share of the $7 million (4.8 million) search.
Now, sitting in his office in Beverly Hills, California, his blue Bentley parked in the garage below, Hilton says, “Steve was a real player."
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