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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"I had a psychic who called me three times a day, every day, from Ontario," complains Cynthia Ryan. "He kept insisting that Fossett was up north in the Black Rock Desert near Burning Man [an annual performance-art hippiefest]."

DeCamp bemoans the inundation of tips from people convinced they had single-handedly found Fossett from the comfort of their PCs. Shortly after the search started, Google Earth, a database of satellite images, released new images of Nevada, and the online store provided amateur searchers with a Web site where they could pore over the recent pictures and alert authorities to possible Fossett sightings.

"We got e-mail after e-mail, 30 to 40 images of the same thing with a note saying ‘See attached, here he is,' " laughs DeCamp. "They had taken a satellite picture of one of our airplanes flying over the desert!"

At the peak, CAP was getting up to 500 calls a day. "We heard from people in China, New Zealand, Belgium, Germany—we got so many calls we had to change the number of the office telephone," says Smith.

Later, when I'm chatting with Hahn, I ask whether more search resources had been directed at Fossett than would have been directed at some run-of-the-mill Wrongway Feldman who flies his airplane into oblivion. Fossett was wealthy and newsworthy; his pal Barron Hilton is an influential political force in Nevada. Was the case given kid-glove handling? At the peak of the search, more than two dozen aircraft were aloft at one time. "Our fuel bill was $38,000," says Cynthia Ryan. "Normal ops for the Nevada wing would be $8,000 a month." Total number of CAP search sorties launched: 969.

"Sure, the number of sorties were high," says Hahn, "but that was due to the area that had to be searched. Because in some places it was so difficult to see anything, we kept putting aircraft back in the air to make certain we were comfortable with the [POD] results in those areas.

"I can honestly say that with Fossett we really did no more, and certainly no less, than we would have for any other search." Derks echoes that sentiment: "If you took the politics and notoriety out of it, it would be a normal search and the process wouldn't change."
It's a process that can be grueling. Even with the perfect flying conditions for my CAP flight—it's clear and cool, and the nifty vector indicator shows the air we're flying through is dead calm—invisible speed bumps give our little Cessna a few hard hits. Trying to keep my gaze fixed on the ground while we're getting bounced around not only makes me queasy, it also induces what CAP folks call the scanner's headache.

When we land for lunch in Carson City, I pop a couple aspirin and down a Coke. I'd been in the air just two hours and I'm embarrassed by my crummy performance and dwindling stamina as a first-time scanner. My head hurts and I'm ready for a nap.

And I've gotten away relatively unharmed. Says Hahn: "I've come back from search flights where I wake up the next day and I'm black and blue because I got beat up so bad in the airplane, hitting my head and getting slammed against the door."

This is harsh territory. Fossett was an exceptional pilot who knew how to get himself out of harrowing situations. But somehow the land or the wind or the heat or some combination of these defeated him.

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