"You are looking for something that doesn't belong: burned foliage, glinting metal, scorch marks on the ground," explains Cynthia Ryan, who is sitting next to me in our Cessna 182, making notes about our flight on a yellow legal pad.
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It is a crisp and cloudless September morning, and I am serving as a "scanner" on this Civil Air Patrol flight. The job is painful: With my face smushed against the rear starboard window, I squint through the blinding morning sun to scrutinize a jumble of craggy peaks, badlands, arroyos, and withering scrub. Ryan points out Mount Grant, an 11,500-foot-high monolith at 10 o'clock, just as the pilot rolls us sideways to avoid hitting it. "That's one son-of-a-gun to search because it's so rugged," she says.
After millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett and his airplane went missing in Nevada on September 3, 2007, it was the Civil Air Patrol that led the search for him. When I arranged to join the hunt, Ryan, 54, a CAP information officer, insisted I wear one of those motion-sickness medication patches you stick behind your ear. I've been jostled in jetliners above South Pacific typhoons and have roller-coastered over Alaska in brittle Beavers, and I have never once been airsick. But I'm glad I took her advice, because the pilot of our turbo-charged Cessna 182, Ryan's husband Ron, 76, has just made his umpteenth turn 1,000 feet above a cluster of mangy hills that look like crumpled paper grocery bags, and despite my patch, I'm beginning to feel woozy.
Since taking off 45 minutes earlier from Reno-Tahoe International Airport, we've been flying a corkscrew pattern—technically called a "contour search"—slowly descending in 500-foot increments. Thus far, Ron has spent a total of 24 hours in the air looking for Fossett. Now, he's wrestling the yoke to keep sadistic updrafts from kicking our single-engine airplane's butt.
Shortly after Fossett, 63, disappeared in his Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, journalists were banned from CAP aircraft involved in the search. "There simply would be no way for us to accommodate everyone," says Cynthia Ryan. Reporters were drawn by the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy businessman and aviation celebrity—Fossett had made the first solo, nonstop flight around the world in a balloon; the first solo, nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in an airplane; and the longest-distance flight of any aircraft in history. He had set a total of 93 aviation world records, and was also an accomplished sailor and mountain climber.
But 24 days had passed since the search began, and virtually all the journalists had packed up and left, so it was not hard to talk my way onto a search flight.
The CAP was launching its sorties from command centers in Minden, Nevada, and Bishop, California, primarily in Cessna 172s, 182s, and 206s and Gippsland Airvans—over five states (Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado). Crews from the Air National Guard pitched in—flying low and slow in Kiowa and Pave Hawk helicopters and doing sweeps in C-130 transports with infrared sensors and high-definition video. The Naval Air Station in nearby Fallon, Nevada, sent HH-1N "Huey" helicopters with night-vision goggles. Scuba divers plumbed lakes, and hotel heir and billionaire aviation aficionado Barron Hilton dispatched his own squadron of 10 helicopters and nine fixed-wing aircraft from his Flying M Ranch, where Fossett had departed on his final flight. Search teams ultimately scoured 30,000 square nautical miles—an area the size of Maryland. In some instances, CAP pilots made two or three passes over the same swath to attain what they say is a 99 percent "probability of detection," or POD.
Rounding out this effort are my amateur eyeballs (in all likelihood the very last CAP-authorized pair to look for Fossett; the force would stop flights the following day, and suspend the search on October 2). I'm not expecting much luck. The failure to find Fossett has many speculating on his intent when he took off at 8:45 that morning. It was initially reported that he was scouting for terrain where he could attempt a land speed record in his rocket car. That turned out to be incorrect: He had already found a site. His wife said that he had intended to enjoy a pleasure ride over the Sierra Nevada mountains, then return for lunch. But what if Fossett had decided to fly one way to some destination? It could mean that there were hundreds and hundreds of miles of land and ocean that had never been searched at all, and needed to be.
Airplanes go missing almost daily throughout the country, so you can bet that at any given moment a CAP crew is airborne somewhere. The CAP also helps with immigration enforcement, homeland security operations, drug busts, disaster relief, and ferrying organs for transplants. On 9/11, it was a CAP pilot who snapped the first aerial images of the World Trade Center site.
The Civil Air Patrol was formally established on December 1, 1941, at the behest of Gill Robb Wilson, an aviator and strident proponent of military preparedness. Wilson urged the formation of a civilian air fleet to assist with military operations. Six days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (nice timing, Wilson), and the CAP set to work. The volunteers supplied their own aircraft; popular ones included Fairchild 24s, Piper J3s and J4s, and Stinson 10As. In World War II, spotters in CAP aircraft painted red and yellow sighted 173 German submarines prowling America's coastal waters. In Flying Minute Men, a history of the CAP, Robert Neprud tells of a German naval officer who was asked after the war why Hitler eventually withdrew his U-boats from U.S. shores. "Because of those damned little red-and-yellow planes," scowled the officer.