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Steve Fossett Special Report: The Vanishing
What went wrong in the record-setting search for Steve Fossett?
Text and photograph by James Vlahos 
Photo: Nevada desert

Harold Dimmick of Mineral County Search and Rescue

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White Noise
No decision in missing-person work is more fundamental than the one that defines the search area. You start by taking a map and placing a pin at the person's last 100 percent known location. From there you draw concentric circles outward, with the assumption that the POD—probability of detection—diminishes the farther out you go. The final ring constrains the search, and past it you write "ROW," or rest of world. It's a quiet acknowledgment that no matter how exhaustive your efforts, the lost person may be somewhere else, unknowably beyond. 

As the search for Fossett wore on, the ROW hypothesis gained steam. Dennis Bunch, Glenn's son and one of the Mineral County searchers, was particularly versed in the unfounded rumors. Fossett had a lover and they ran off to start a new life together. He had financial problems to escape. He was kidnapped in a plot involving the U.S. military, extraterrestrials, and the late John Denver. "Maybe we haven't found him because he doesn't want to be found," Dennis said.

Speculation was understandable in the absence of solid clues. As is common for a small-plane pilot at a private airstrip, Fossett did not file a flight plan with the FAA. Less typically, he didn't tell anyone on the ground where specifically he was headed. He left behind his "go" bag, which contained a cell phone, satellite phone, and GPS unit. "Fossett wasn't going anywhere in particular because when he does, he dresses for whatever task he's looking at. He also takes his equipment with him, and that was left sitting on a bed in his room," said Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford, one of the lead investigators. "This was a pleasure cruise." Fossett had a radio but never made a distress call. The Decathlon had an emergency locator device that was supposed to be triggered by a hard landing, but no signals were received. "The only thing we know for certain is that he left the ranch heading south," Sanford said.

The center pin on the map in the Fossett search is the Flying M, where guests like Sylvester Stallone and Morgan Freeman go to hunt quail, ride horses, shoot skeet, and fly-fish. After Fossett failed to return on September 3, Hilton put out a call for help and dozens of volunteers responded, many of them high-profile aviator friends of Fossett's. They were dubbed the "Flying M Air Force." Dick Rutan—brother of Burt, who mounted the first private flight into suborbital space—flew search missions. Terry Delore, who had set ten glider world records with Fossett, served as a spotter. Einar Enevoldson, the revered NASA test pilot, was one of many participants in the nightly roundtable discussions. Neil Armstrong was another. They considered Fossett's skills and flying habits, possible routes and potential problems.

In the days following, hundreds of people came forward claiming to have seen Fossett's plane. One of the most probable sightings was made at about 11 a.m. on September 3. A Flying M ranch hand named Rawley Bigsby was sitting on his front porch when he saw the plane fly over. Bigsby's boss at the ranch often flew the Decathlon to check up on his workers, so Bigsby knew exactly what the plane looked like. The last he saw of the Decathlon, it was heading east over Mud Springs Canyon.

A torrent of leads also came from people scanning satellite images from Google Earth. They used a system called Mechanical Turk, which coordinated the efforts of thousands of searchers who spent up to 14 hours a day examining map quadrants online. The effort was hailed by the press as a triumph of "crowdsourcing" and as a revolution in search and rescue. The actual payoff, however, was negligible. Many supposed sightings of Fossett's plane on the ground turned out to be images of other planes in flight. "I love technology," said Major Ryan. "But this is a case of a bunch of people trying to do something they don't have the training for."

In retrospect, the volume of leads may have done more harm than good, wasting valuable time and obscuring what was perhaps the only smoking gun in the Fossett case. Just hours into the search Lt. Guy Loughridge, a Civil Air Patrol expert analyst, picked up a radar log that looked promising, depicting somebody just noodling around in the airspace. It was at a low altitude, about 2,000 feet (610 meters). It looked just like a pilot on a pleasure jaunt—a pilot like Fossett.

The location, furthermore, was over Powell and Jim Canyons, which sit just to the east of Mud Springs Canyon, where Bigsby said he last saw the famous aviator. Cursory air searches based on the log were made early in the month, but the vital importance of the clue—Sanford calls it "the only credible radar track we've been able to locate"—wasn't recognized until late September, when Derks renewed the search. It turns out that our operation south of Hawthorne, during which I spotted two balloons, wasn't based on a hot new lead but rather on three-week-old information.

Continue Reading:
Page 1: The Vanishing >>

Page 2: A Khaki Abyss >>

Page 3: White Noise >>

Page 4: A Final Flight >>

Page 5: Too Few Boots >>

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