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Crashed aircraft is Fossett's, authorities confirm

'Number plate' identifies adventurer's Bellanca Super Decathalon

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Updated Authorities have confirmed that the crashed Bellanca Super Decathalon in the mountains of eastern California is that of Steve Fossett, although the wreckage contains no body.

A hiker on Monday found Fosset's ID documents, including his pilot and glider licences and his membership card for the National Aeronautic Association. The discovery led to a renewed search for the missing adventurer, which earlier today resulted in the location of the wrecked aircraft.

Preston Morrow, store manager of Kittredge Sports in Mammoth Lakes, Mono County, California, was hiking with his dog in the Inyo National Forest in neighbouring Madera County, some 140 miles south of Reno when he stumbled across the licences, as well as clothing and cash.

Fosset was last seen on 3 September 2007 at hotelier Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, roughly 70 miles southeast of Reno, when he took off in his Bellanca Super Decathalon to reccy possible locations for a planned attempt on the world land-speed record. An extensive search failed to locate him or the remains of his aircraft, and he was officially declared dead in February this year.

According to Morrow's boss, Tom Cage, the items - including a "weathered Nautica brand sweatshirt" plus ten $100 bills and a $5 bill" - were at an elevation of 10,100 feet, two miles east of a range of jagged peaks dubbed the Minarets and "about six miles into some very tough terrain".

Cage explained: "Preston didn't realize what he found until the next day. He just thought he was taking some trash out of the wilderness, so he took it home, watched Monday night football and didn't look at it again until the next day."

Once they realised the significance of the finds, Morrow and his wife retured to the site on Tuesday "to search for more items and to get GPS coordinates". They then presented Mammoth Lakes Police Department with the evidence and coordinates.

Ground search teams from Mono and Madera Counties yesterday scoured the area for possible aircraft remains, assisted by helicopters and an aircraft from the California Highway Patrol. Just before dusk, an aerial spotter sighted "what appeared to be wreckage of an airplane".

Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said late last night: "Our teams are going in to that area, and we hope to know whether it is really plane wreckage, and if it is Fossett's or someone else's, by morning."

The operation was successful, and the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed this morning that searchers had located a crashed Bellanca Super Decathlon near Mammoth Lakes. It was later identified by a "number plate" as Fossett's.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson explained that the aircraft appeared to have hit a mountain head-on. He said: "The crash looked so severe I doubt if someone would have walked away from it. There was no body in the plane. We have not found any human remains at the crash site."

Anderson added around 50 people and dog teams would now search the area for a possible body. He did, however, caution: "It's quite often if you don't find remains within a few days, because of animals, you'll find nothing at all."

The Mammoth Lakes region was last year subjected to a brief aerial survey, "based on an unconfirmed reported sighting of Fossett's plane in the area" - without result. However, he was known to fly along the route of Highway 395, which "passes close to Mammoth Lakes as it snakes from Canada to the Mojave Desert".

While Fossett had been searching for dry lake beds, and the lakes in the area being searched are "generally filled with water", US Forest Service spokeswoman Nancy Upham explained "there are dry lake beds in the Nevada mountains not far to the east". ®

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