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Special Report: Steve Fossett
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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 airstrip

Fossett's fateful flight departed from this hanger and airstrip at Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch.

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The Final Flight
In mid-September a psychic was brought to the Flying M. "You are needing me," she reportedly told those there. Fossett had encountered engine trouble, she said. He tried to find a safe landing place but crashed into a mountainside. "He is in a dark place, covered with white, powdery dirt, with one arm hanging out." The psychic was operating in the realm of pure conjecture, but so, too, were investigators. And almost every theory formulated had numerous sensible reasons against it.

Something may have gone wrong with the Decathlon, but mechanical failure is rarely the cause of accidents involving small planes. Pilot incapacitation—a heart attack, a seizure, a stroke—was also a remote possibility, though Fossett, 63, was in good health. News reports, meanwhile, implied that Fossett might have made a mistake while taking chances in an unfamiliar stunt plane. But Fossett knew the Decathlon, which Robert Szego, president of the Bellanca-Champion Club, calls "an excellent, safe, and responsive machine." Fossett, furthermore, wasn't a daredevil. "He's not a crop duster. He never was," says Rick Blakemore, a friend and fellow pilot.

The theory that has been considered most intently concerns the weather. Both Bigsby's sighting and the radar track place Fossett near mountain peaks where dangerous downdrafts are found. In 1999 three highly regarded glider pilots who departed from the airport in nearby Minden perished in wind-related accidents. Major Ryan described September 3 as "a really delightful day to go flying." But just a day later conditions were so bad that some search planes were grounded and others were unable to fly low enough to scan effectively. "There have been times when I've been flying in the wind and my blood turns cold," says Adam Mayberry, a pilot familiar with the area.

To better understand how downdrafts work, imagine gushing river water hitting a rock. On the front side of the rock water shoots upward. But on the back it dives into a dangerous hole. Air currents work in a similar fashion. When gusting winds hit a mountainside, they careen upward. That's how glider pilots can soar for hours on the windward sides of ridges. On the leeward sides, however, the air shoots powerfully down.

Aviators are taught to monitor wind speeds and approach mountain ranges at a 45-degree angle, so that if a downdraft presents itself, a 45-degree turn will lead out of harm's way. A particularly strong wind current can cause an elevation loss of over 1,500 feet (457 meters) a minute. Most planes, including Fossett's Decathlon, can climb only about 1,000 feet (305 meters) a minute. "It could have happened that in crossing a ridgeline, an unexpected downdraft knocked the aircraft down," says Lieutenant Loughridge.

Downdrafts don't inevitably lead to crashes. With his extensive balloon and sailplane experience, Fossett would have been particularly adept at identifying and managing the risks. But expertise in a particular endeavor is not a guarantee of safety. In fact, it can work against you, according to scientists in the field of risk analysis. The rate of death for experienced kayakers, for example, is nearly four times higher than it is among inexperienced ones. A study of 622 U.S. avalanche incidents between 1972 and 2001 found that people with avalanche training made more risk perception errors than people without.

There is no hard evidence that a combination of wind and pilot error caused Fossett to crash, and people who know him find the theory hard to accept. But put yourself in his sneakers. You've flown around the world, swum the English Channel, raced the Iditarod, climbed the Matterhorn. You're on a pleasure flight, in sweats. Is it possible that you let your guard down for a few crucial seconds? Sure. "It's like baseball," says Szego. "On any given day, any team can lose. On any given day, anything, however unlikely, can happen. And obviously did." Lieutenant Loughridge agrees that no aviator is invincible. He has searched for more than 200 lost planes, locating all but three of them. "Every time, the pilot puts himself in a position that is beyond the airplane's ability or the pilot's," he says. "That's why people die out there."

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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