Because MAST cannot take every cold case, it focuses on the most promising candidates. For the oldest cases, eyewitness reports are essential. But for more recent incidents—those in the past 10 or 15 years—technology plays a larger role. Before taking a case, MAST members want to know whether anyone in the missing airplane carried a cell phone, and whether its data are still available. Because cell phones must always be ready to place a call, they maintain reception by regularly emitting pings to nearby towers, a process that is tracked and recorded by service providers. MAST’s Tim Evinger, the sheriff of Klamath County, Oregon, and the head of the privately funded Fossett search, used his skills in cell phone forensics to help solve the Cessna case. One of the two people aboard the aircraft had been carrying a cell phone; Evinger correlated data from the service provider with one of many unidentified aircraft radar tracks in the region. The association helped MAST narrow the search area.
Radar tracks made minutes before a crash can provide vital clues to the aircraft’s general vicinity. The problem, says Evinger, is that radar data isn’t always archived.
Emergency locator transmitters—and newer devices called personal locater beacons and SPOT Personal Trackers—can tell a satellite your location within a few yards. Data emitted from any of these gadgets can lead searchers to a missing aircraft. But pilots are not required to carry them.
Evinger muses about a day when airplanes and passengers are so wired that getting lost simply won’t be possible. In the future, he says, our activities will always leave an electronic trail.
DAY TWO OF THE SEARCH. Two finds are intriguing: The first is a general aviation aircraft from which divers recover an instrument panel. (It was later identified as part of a Cessna 210C. Both occupants survived the June 1973 crash in the bay, and MAST interviewed them.) The second are drainage plugs from an airplane fuel tank. They have part numbers, and MAST is continuing to research them.
In seven days, 12 divers, reaching depths up to 270 feet, clear 44 targets. They find boulders, orange highway cones, lobster traps, a sailboat, a mysterious metal box, and a 30-foot-tall telecommunications antenna. Gene Ralston conducts a second pass with the side-scan sonar, ruling out the remaining targets.
MAST did not locate the Mustang. Is it possible the searchers missed it? MAST’s Hyman has doubts: “Divers always say that items on the ocean floor tend to displace current and sediment deposits, leaving them exposed, if large enough—like the T-33 plane we located.”
But Rikk Kvitek, director of the Seafloor Mapping Laboratory at California State University at Monterey, e-mails me that in Santa Monica Bay, there has been “significant deposition of fine sediments in the 1900s. This could easily cover and/or obscure the low-relief wreckage of a small aircraft.” Pete Dartnell of the USGS in Menlo Park, California, has measured the depths of Santa Monica Bay, and agrees: “This is a dynamic environment with the potential to bury small wreckage.”
MAST’s Colleen Keller thinks it is “highly likely that the wreckage is buried. For a while we were discussing trying to involve U.S. minesweeping assets to search the near-shore area for wreckage just beneath the surface. Deeper water would present more significant problems. These are highly localized sensors…the veritable needle-in-the-haystack situation.”
It’s possible, too, that the Mustang is in a less likely part of the bay, outside the 60-square-mile zone that MAST, deeming it the most promising, chose for the search.