Guide optimistic for adventurer

Edward Stoner

GYPSUM – Steve Fossett said he wanted to take a few nice balloon flights.But his sights were set much higher when he came to Merlin Sagon’s Gypsum-based Camelot Balloons in 1993 to get his certification to fly hot-air balloons.Fossett wanted to fly around the world.It didn’t take too long for Sagon to figure out that Fossett – by then an experienced sailor, race-car driver and skier – wanted to do more than leisurely outings.”After knowing what he had done in the past, the pieces came together,” Sagon said.Fossett, who lives much of the year in Beaver Creek, disappeared Monday after taking off in a single-engine airplane to scout places where he could try to set the land speed record. A massive search of rugged terrain in Nevada and California continued Wednesday.The reconnaissance trip seems to pale in comparison to the more adventurous endeavors Fossett has undertaken, Sagon said.”He’s done all kinds of things and cheated death and come back to tell the story,” Sagon said. “[For him, this flight] is like going down to the grocery store to get a jug of milk.”Sagon said he’s very optimistic that Fossett will turn up alive.”He’s been in some very precarious situations,” Sagon said. “I can’t think of anyone who is more capable of being in a precarious situation than Steve.”Fossett is hardly a reckless adventurer, Sagon said, calling him “careful” and “methodical.”In ’93, Sagon and Fossett did 11 balloon flights, and Fossett earned his certification. Sagon called him a model student.”He’s like a sponge,” said Sagon, who has run balloon trips in Eagle County for 19 years. “He picks up on things real fast.”They stayed in touch over the years as Fossett made attempt after attempt – six in all – to balloon around the world nonstop. Fossett finally did it in 2002.The bearded, long-haired Sagon – amid the balloon baskets in his Gypsum office – flipped through an album of letters from Fossett and clippings about the adventurer’s exploits.”This was his second attempt, this was his third attempt,” he said, pointing to letters from Fossett.Sagon even went to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the 1997 launch of Fossett’s worldwide balloon attempt. Sagon helped Fossett with the takeoff.After several of the unsuccessful worldwide flights, Fossett would have parties at his Beaver Creek home, and Sagon would attend.”He always wanted to talk about his landing because that was part of his training,” Sagon said. “Of course, I didn’t tell him how to land in the ocean.”One of Fossett’s unsuccessful attempts included an unexpected landing in shark-infested ocean waters.Sagon and his pilots run balloon trips just about every day that weather allows. On Wednesday, rain had left them grounded.The concept behind the balloons is pretty simple as Sagon explains it: more hot air makes them go up, and less hot air makes them go down. The balloons use powerful propane burners.But there’s no steering wheel, and pilots often have to end up where Mother Nature sends them. Sagon has many places around the valley where he can land, much of owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.For now, Sagon is waiting for good news about Fossett, and is confident that there will be a happy ending.”He’ll be thirsty and hungry and wondering why it took so long for people to find him,” Sagon said.