Let the wacky Fossett theories begin!

Had this happened, say, in the Rocky Mountains or off the coast of Bar Harbour, Maine, you can be sure that it would’ve taken longer than a scant 24 hours before someone was on the blogs and the cable news spinning fabulous tales of what may have happened to missing aviator Steve Fossett.

It didn’t. It happened in Nevada. And so it should be no surprise to anyone that the national ignorance of our fair state’s geography and topography should lead someone respectable like CNN Space & Technology correspondent Miles O’Brien to posit at the first possible hint that perhaps the Feds were somehow involved with his disappearance.

I write from the fabulous Best Western in Minden, Nev., where an exhaustive search for the renowned adventurer and 100+-time world record holder in aviation, boating and land is entering its fifth day. Fossett took off from the posh Flying M Ranch near Yerington owned by Paris and Nicky’s grandpa, William Barron Hilton, on Monday for a brief recreational jaunt in a single-engine two-seater and was never heard from again.

It is, undoubtedly, an odd situation, which is why after two days of covering the matter by phone and TV from Las Vegas, I was sent up here by The New York Times. (You can follow my blogging about this trip here.)

It is weird, of course, because Fossett is the one man you’d want with you if ever you had a crash landing or a shipwreck or trapped in a pit of poisonous snakes. The man is a lifelong Eagle Scout who is now the president of the National Eagle Scouts Association, has climbed countless punishing mountains, ran the Iditarod and survived crashing into the Pacific in a malfunctioning hot air balloon. Should he have perished in a silly little plane on a clear day in familiar terrain, it would be akin to Gen. George Patton having made it through World War II only to die in a Jeep crash. (Yes, that’s true.)

After four days and counting, the search area encompasses 10,000 square miles and the mission has been joined by more than two dozen aircraft plus 200 volunteers, including hikers, horseback riders and boaters at Walker Lake. Still nothing. That the Eagle Scout hasn’t sent out a distress signal with the plane’s electronic beacon or the global positioning device in the fancy watch that Richard Branson says Fossett wears, is not a good sign. If he’s alive and capable but all that failed, it’s similarly surprising he hasn’t set the drought-dry brush around him on fire to signal his location.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know the incorrect ones. And the utterance of CNN’s O’Brien on Tuesday as the news story was only a few hours old is certainly one of them. O’Brien was calling in his "expertise" from an undisclosed location and listening to a press conference through his phone, having the nerve right afterward to get uppity when reporters there didn’t, to his mind, aggressively follow up on comments that Civil Air Patrol Nevada Wing spokeswoman Maj. Cynthia Ryan made that searchers were working with some “electronic evidence.” It turned out that that evidence was actually just some recorded blips on an air-traffic controller radar screen.

Still, he groaned, "Shame on them," of the journalists actually on the ground in Minden. Then, about an hour later, he's on the air betraying his utter lack of insight about Nevada geography.

"It is possible that Fossett flew into some restricted air space in that area,” O’Brien told Wolf Blitzer. “Nellis Air Force base is nearby, that's the home of the Thunderbirds. Not far also from Area 51 which everyone knows a little something about. It is possible that there was some sort of electronic radar information which the military might have had associated with that restricted air space."

Both Area 51 and Nellis are well over 300 miles from the Flying M Ranch and not in any way in the right direction of a search area that was, at that time, 600 square miles to the south and west of Yerington. A 600-square-mile area could be 60 miles by 10 miles and still not come close to either site.

Ryan told me later that such a notion was “laughable” and that had Fossett crossed into restricted air space -- of which there is plenty in the Yerington region -- they would know exactly where he was.

The Internet rumor mill has been hard at work, too. The Sun-Herald Web site, representing five small newspapers in south-central Florida, topped an Associated Press story about the disappearance with the headline, “Did Fossett fly over Area 51 by any chance?” even though Area 51 wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the piece. One astute blogger noticed a mild earthquake near Tonopah on Monday that wasn’t even near the correct time that Fossett would likely have crashed given his fuel level. Another blogger wondered if he was on the run from some sort of charges. What, footsie in a Minneapolis airport toilet stall, perchance? As if Fossett would fly commercial!

I’m anxious to see how this plays out. But should he never be found, you heard it here first: This will become one of the greatest conspiracy-theory parlor games of our time. And all because it happened in Nevada.

Steve Friess is a Vegas-based writer who contributes regularly to Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, Vegas and many others. Contact him at [email protected]

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