The Search for Steve Fossett

One tough job for the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.

Would you have spotted it? The writer and the CAP officers with him on his search flight kept missing this old aircraft wreck, one of six uncovered in the course of the Fossett search. The Nevada landscape is cruelly good at concealing wrecks. (Michael Behar)
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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.

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.

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