The Search for Steve Fossett
One tough job for the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 3 of 7)
In Nevada, the CAP runs about 30 searches a year. "Of those, only about half turn out to be lost; the others just land and forget to clear out their flight plans," says Gary Derks, an officer for the Nevada Department of Public Safety. Derks is a big portly man with a gentle voice who hates to fly. He's the chief lawman in charge of the Fossett operation, and has been coordinating the efforts of the CAP, National Guard, Navy, and state authorities.
Whenever an airplane goes missing, the initial call from a worried friend or family member typically goes to the FAA, the local police, or an airport flight service (the one at the Reno-Tahoe airport got the call about Fossett at 1:10 p.m., about five and a half hours after he'd departed, from an unidentified family member). If the airplane disappears in Nevada, the next call is to Derks.
"We start by doing ramp checks," he says. Alerts go out to every airport in range of the missing flight to see if the pilot landed and simply forgot to tell anyone he arrived. If that fails, Derks notifies the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. The center directs all overland search-and-rescue operations in the Lower 48, Mexico, and Canada. When ramp checks turned up nothing after Fossett was reported missing, Derks met with AFRCC brass to hash out the next step. "It was nighttime, and there was a possibility of him being trapped in one of the canyons," Derks recalls. "They're narrow and steep and it's tough to see anything."
The coordination center asked the Navy base in Fallon to conduct a preliminary search with its night-vision Hueys. When that proved unsuccessful, Derks and the center sounded the alarm to mobilize nearby CAP volunteers.
Nevada's CAP ranks include an artist, construction worker, stockbroker, firefighter, realtor, civil engineer, dentist, and lumber salesman. The director of operations for the CAP Nevada Wing is Tim Hahn, a 52-year-old aircraft mechanic and former police lieutenant who had worked on homicides and sex crimes. Hahn has a shaved head and goes by the nickname Kojak. He remembers the first meeting of the CAP volunteers at the command center at the Minden airport, and how daunting the challenges seemed. "Fossett took off in an airplane with four hours of gas," he says. His aircraft could do about 120 knots—nautical miles per hour—so at the outset, the search area was a circle with a radius of either 240 nautical miles (assuming Fossett had been making a round trip) or 480 (if he'd intended to fly one way toward some destination). "In other words," says Hahn, "where do we start?"
At Minden headquarters the walls are covered with aeronautical sectionals—big topographic maps. On one, crosshairs mark the Flying M Ranch, ringed by concentric circles that indicate the potential ranges of Fossett's journey.
(Later, a ranch hand reported seeing Fossett's aircraft less than 20 miles from the Hilton ranch's airport, at around 11 a.m. By then, Fossett would have had less than two hours of fuel left, so his aircraft would have gone down within the two-hour range. But questions have been raised as to the time of the witness' sighting, and CAP commanders have not been able to interview the man to assess the credibility of his account.)
We have stopped here at Minden before our search flight to attend the daily briefing and prepare our flight plan. Uniformed CAP pilots hunch over maps, and the radio in the communications room is cackling with chatter. I meet Betsy Smith, a lanky, fast-talking retired geography professor who warns she'll wring my neck if I print her age. Officially an "incident commander," her CAP duties for the Nevada Wing include overseeing search operations and directing aerospace education.