Yes, America and the world are concerned. And, the citizens of California, Nevada, and I suppose the US are paying for the search. Search and rescue volunteers are actually risking their lives and equipment. Thousands of nerds are squinting at their computer screens, scanning photographs provided through Google Earth and Amazon.com, each one hoping to be the one that finally spots the little plane and its heroic pilot. But SFgate gives a slightly different perspective on Fossett, his host, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. (Of course, you already know about Paris Hilton, so this shouldn’t be too big a shock.)
Until dozens of airplanes and helicopters began roaring over this pristine little ranchland valley this month, most locals had no idea there was a huge aviation playland for the rich just a few miles from their barn doors.
All those aircraft have been buzzing in and out of the Flying M Ranch, searching for world-renowned adventurer Steve Fossett, who disappeared in an acrobatic airplane on Labor Day. He, too, had taken off from the ranch, home of billionaire hotel magnate Barron Hilton.
The reaction from plenty of folks who live here was: Say what?
Eighty hot, dusty miles south of Reno, the ranch is probably one of the best-kept secrets around here for everyone except celebrities and those in the upper slipstream of aviation society.
“Well, they fly the rich and famous in there, and that’s about as much as we know about it,” said Rob Cockrell, who lives in the nearby community of Mason Valley. “But I guarantee you this: Mr. Hilton isn’t going to come down here and shake my hand.”
…Set at the end of a 17.4-mile-long, chassis-jarring dirt road, the million-acre spread of ranchland surrounding a mansion with its own airfield has drawn the famous and rich in steady trickles since Hilton – grandfather to vacuous It-Girl Paris Hilton – bought it 40 years ago. Most of the land is leased from the federal Bureau of Land Management, and all told it encompasses a Rhode Island-size swath of mountain and desert from the ghost town of Bodie in California on the west to Nevada’s Walker Lake on the east.
The ranch was named after Hilton’s late wife, Marylin. It originally was intended to be a pampering rest stop for high rollers from Las Vegas and to house Hilton’s collection of antique and exotic airplanes. But over the decades, it has evolved into a hangout for those who share the 79-year-old billionaire’s love of aviation.
…The draw is simple: Fly in privately with no notice because it is so remote, tool around the skies as much as you please, and indulge in the graciousness of the man whose very name embodies hospitality. At least one gourmet chef is on staff, and her skills are so legendary among guests that rescue workers said Fossett’s disappearance was quickly noted since he would never have missed the lunch on tap for that day.
If you’re deft with a flying stick or yoke (an aircraft steering wheel), you might just get to take a spin in Hilton’s Cessna Citation V Ultra, 1941 Stearman biplane, two gliders, 1943 Beech Staggerwing, McDonnell Douglas 500E helicopter or three hot-air balloons – all of which, according to one of his Web sites, Hilton still flies.
He also owns a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, one of the world’s best acrobatic airplanes. That is what the wealthy Fossett, who lives in Chicago and Carmel, borrowed on Labor Day and disappeared in.
“There’s a whole bunch of us who have a love for flying, and we just get together,” Hilton told Denver-based aviation writer Di Freeze in 2003, explaining his passion for running the airplane playland.
“No one is more generous than Barron,” Clay Lacy, owner of Clay Lacy Aviation, gushed in the same article.
Among those who have basked in Hilton’s glow over the years are actors Cliff Robertson and Sylvester Stallone, who hunts in the hills with his children. Also visiting were the late astronaut Alan Shepard and the late singer John Denver, who learned gliding at the Flying M and died a decade ago flying off the coast of Monterey.
Specialists in gliding are particularly excited about the estate – if they get an invitation to Hilton’s Barron Hilton Cup, a gliding competition held at the ranch every two years among the top gliders of the world. Italian world champion glider Giorgio Galetto told Freeze in the 2003 article that the experience was “a modern fairy tale.”
Locals in the know rhapsodize – from afar, not from experience – about trout fishing in the East Walker River, which cuts through the ranch, and skeet shooting alongside the soaring mountain slopes. The word in the area is that some guests have been supplied $3,000 golden retrievers to help track down the area’s elusive quail.
The central compound is a rancher’s dream, consisting of a mansion-size main house, a scattering of spacious guest houses and poplar, cottonwood and elm trees casting shade over all. At the north end are an alfalfa field and stack of hay bales, at the south end a cattle pen and pond with egrets flapping among the tule reeds.
Across the dirt road are two large hangars and an airfield, which all week long has been buzzing with civilian and National Guard aircraft, which are conducting a Hilton-subsidized search for Fossett in conjunction with the official hunt headquartered 40 miles north in Minden. On Thursday there were six helicopters, four small planes, two private jets and a military fuel truck near the lone runway just after lunchtime.
“Let’s just say that unless you’re rich and famous, nobody even thinks of going to that place,” said area resident Roberto Estrella. “It’s in the middle of nowhere for a reason.”
And yes, Maude, prostitution is legal in Lyon County.