The Search for Steve Fossett
One tough job for the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 4 of 7)
The maps on the wall are divided into a grid, with each sector encompassing 293 square miles; one of Smith's primary jobs is to assign pilot-scanner teams to the sectors, then keep a tally on which have been flown when and by whom.
Each time a sector is searched, it's marked with a purple square. The area running north-south along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range is jammed with purple squares. "This is a region where a small aircraft would encounter very high winds," notes Smith.
Pilot Bill Schroeder, 63, who has just arrived for the morning briefing, says the winds barreling across the Sierras can be deadly to small aircraft and are responsible for the majority of crashes in the state. Schroeder is a master certified flight instructor with a specialty in mountain flying. He tells me that even expert pilots can easily fall victim to the nasty Sierra winds. "The Sierras are an abrupt outcropping straight out of the ground," he says. "Four miles from Minden they rise 12,000 feet. On the western side of the Sierra, the air follows the slope upward. But as soon as the mountains crest, the air tumbles over the leeward side into Nevada; think of a river flowing over a big rock and then spilling down the backside like a waterfall." When pilots head west toward California, they make a beeline to the mountains, thinking they have ample distance from their departure point—such as the 5,700-foot-long airstrip at Hilton's ranch—to get over the Sierra crest.
This might work in the Appalachians, says Schroeder, because those hills slope more gradually, or in the Rockies, where the difference in elevation between the point of takeoff and the Continental Divide is much less. "But here the wind is forced to rise rapidly and can accelerate to well over 130 miles per hour, creating severe downdrafts on the lee side." Fossett's airplane had a top speed of 155 mph. Even a moderate gust would halve his airspeed almost instantly. "The tumbling air can turn an aircraft upside down, cause structural damage in flight, and eventually cause a crash," says Schroeder.
While searching for Fossett the Nevada CAP air crews spotted six other wrecks they weren't looking for. "We checked them all out," Derk says. "There were no skeletal remains. We got tail numbers and serial numbers and determined that at some point they had all been identified."
Still, flying over this terrain, you can understand how a wreck might be lying right under your nose but go unnoticed for decades. "People think Nevada is a big flat desert, but it's the most mountainous state in the U.S.," says Cynthia Ryan. Indeed, Nevada encompasses 314 named mountain ranges, and it has more peaks over 10,000 feet than any other state. Though it's the seventh largest state in the nation, it's the eighth least populated, and no wonder: It's a buckled, folded, twisted labyrinth of sheer slopes and jagged volcanic rock.
In this terrain, even a Boeing 747 could disappear.
Think I'm exaggerating? Consider this: United Airlines lets passengers eavesdrop on the pilots' communications with air traffic control. On my flight into Reno, as the Airbus A320 descended, I heard a controller repeatedly ask our pilot to switch on his transponder—a radar transmitter that conveys aircraft identity and location—and the pilot kept insisting it was "operational and working normally." After some back and forth, the voice on the ground finally conceded that the terrain must be blocking the signal. That may explain why pings from Fossett's ELT were never heard.
Riding shotgun on my CAP flight is Russ Johnson, a 68-year-old retired Air Force pilot. Johnson, a no-nonsense man-of-few-words, isn't entirely enthralled by Fossett's exploits, like his recent interest in setting a land speed record. "I'm not so sure about a guy's judgment when he wants to do 700 miles per hour in his car," he says. Johnson was a forward air controller in Vietnam, a deceptively modest job title for someone who skimmed above the dense jungle in a Cessna, deliberately drawing Viet Cong fire to flush out enemies ahead of advancing U.S. troops. "I have quite a bit of experience looking for stuff on the ground," Johnson tells me. The skill makes him an exceptional CAP scanner: able to remain hyper-focused on mercilessly monotonous terrain as it zips past at 125 mph, while enduring short bursts of overwhelming visual distraction and stress.
During his 33.2 hours of flight time searching for Fossett, Johnson spotted two of those six earlier wreck sites and noted their locations. On this flight, he has decided to show me one of them. He enters the coordinates of one in our Cessna's GPS unit.