October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

Where is Steve Fossett? In one of the most extensive rescue efforts it has ever mounted, the Civil Air Patrol spent two weeks searching an area twice the size of New Jersey for him. Yet still, officials are no closer to finding Fossett, 63, than they were when he was first reported missing hours after taking off in his single-engine plane from a Nevada ranch owned by close friend Barron Hilton (Paris Hilton‘s grandfather). Though authorities stumbled across the wreckage of six planes in their search, they found no trace of Fossett and decided to scale back their hunt this week, leaving only two aircraft dedicated to the search. “We’re all asking ourselves, ‘Why can’t we find him?'” says Joe Sanford, undersheriff of Nevada’s Lyon County. “It’s a real mystery.”

So how could the first man to single-handedly circle the globe in a balloon just disappear over the continental United States? One contributing factor is that Fossett—though a meticulous planner and a safety nut—took off on his solo sightseeing trip on Labor Day without filing flight plans. He also flew into one of the nation’s most treacherous regions, where rugged mountains and strong turbulence have proved deadly for even the most skilled pilots. “It certainly isn’t the Bermuda Triangle for lost aircraft,” says Maj. Cynthia Ryan of Nevada’s Civil Air Patrol. “But it can be a very challenging place for a pilot.”

Friends and family—including Fossett’s wife of 39 years, Peggy—are starting to despair that the Tennessee native and wealthy former financier will ever make it home alive. “He has been close to meeting his maker many times,” says William Moore, Fossett’s former roommate at Stanford University. “But even Steve would have trouble surviving these conditions. I can’t think of a worse place to go down.”

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