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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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.

We're in a new airplane, built in 2006, with a belly-mounted camera linked to a satellite transmitter, a setup that lets the crew take photos of the ground and send them anywhere in the world instantly. In addition, the Cessna is equipped with a Garmin G1000 "glass cockpit": The instruments are displayed digitally on dual LCD screens in front of the pilot and copilot. The GPS unit is integrated into the glass display, and our route to the wreckage is highlighted in yellow. Johnson pushes a toggle button next to the screen, switching to a "fly through" mode that renders the terrain in three dimensions. The mountains are color-coded, and anything that's higher than our current elevation is red. At the moment, we're flying through a crimson sea.

Only a few Cessnas in the CAP's nationwide fleet have this fancy navigation and imaging technology. But the CAP also has 16 Gippsland Airvans, each with an imaging system called ARCHER (Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance). ARCHER's prowess is its ability to take a snapshot of an object's color and heat emissions, then compare the data with debris on the ground to try to spot an identical object there. For this search, ARCHER was programmed to use the color and heat signatures of the Super Decathlon's wheel pants, which Fossett had left behind.

The system isn't perfect. "The northern Nevada desert has lots of stuff lying out on it," says Smith. "Trying to determine whether it's old mining junk or a dead airplane—who knows?"

After 15 minutes, our GPS track shows we're about a half-mile from the old wreckage. Johnson takes the controls on his copilot yoke. He banks hard to the left, giving me a clear view of the crash site. According to the GPS unit, we're right on top of it. I crane forward. Cynthia Ryan peers through her window. Ron Ryan and Johnson glance from side to side, then double-check the coordinates to ensure that we're in the right spot. Despite four sets of eyes trained on a patch of ground less than 900 feet below, none of us can spot the airplane.

Finally, on the fifth pass over the site, I glimpse tiny white specks scattered across a treeless slope. The tail section is partially intact, and from the size of it, we figure the airplane is quite large.

It is definitely a lot bigger than Fossett's single-engine, two-seat Bellanca Citabria, "a little bitty airplane that would come apart in a heartbeat," in the words of Dion DeCamp, 73, who commands the CAP Nevada Wing. "You could pull the wings off the thing with your bare hands." DeCamp is a former Air Force C-130 pilot and American Airlines captain. "If Fossett hit anything, the chance of finding the plane is very small because there's not much metal framework and it would break into a million pieces." Plus, the Super Decathlon's fuselage was covered in fabric; if it slammed into a mountain and caught fire, most of that material would burn to ashes. "A couple of tree limbs could cover the wreckage and that would be that," says DeCamp.

"Even if Fossett deliberately set his plane down, because of the terrain, the odds of finding it are minuscule," Derks says.

It's sad to think that Fossett might have walked away from his downed airplane in one piece, only to be killed by the desert heat. Of course, that's just one theory. I hear plenty of others after a round of martinis with CAP pilots at an upscale steakhouse in Reno.
DeCamp is certain the winds did Fossett in: "He stalled the aircraft trying to cross a ridge and went straight into the ground. On the way down he might have snapped a few branches, but most of the limbs sprung back and covered him up. Eventually, the deer hunters will find him."

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