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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   Map by Computer Terrain Mapping


Photo: Searchers in Nevada


SAR volunteers gather around Glenn Bunch near Hawthorne, Nevada.


Page 1 of 5  |  Next >>

Hawthorne, Nevada, is more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) southeast of Reno and 300 miles (483 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. A tiny spot of civilization on a sunbaked desert plain, the town of 3,311 residents sits between the arid peaks of the Wassuk and Gillis Ranges. When I arrived, it was nearly a month after famed aviator Steve Fossett had disappeared, and the effort to find him had flagged.

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Map: Nevada search area

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Private search flights and some ground efforts continued, but the Civil Air Patrol had announced in the third week of September that they were suspending further aerial missions. "It's against our nature to walk away from a search," said Nevada Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan. "But at some point you have diminishing returns."

On Wednesday, September 26, however, Gary Derks, the Nevada Department of Public Safety official who helped oversee the search, gave reason for hope: Air Force radar track analysts had identified what might have been a portion of Fossett's fateful flight path. In a major new push planned for the weekend, search and rescue teams from Lyon County, the location of Fossett's departure point, and Mineral County, which the radar track had identified, would hit the ground. Observers in three planes would scan from overhead. "Am I confident that we are going to find him this time? Yes," Derks said.

The quest to locate Steve Fossett—one of the 21st century's most celebrated aviators, the first person to fly around the world alone and nonstop by both hot air balloon and plane—was the largest search and rescue effort ever mounted for a person on U.S. soil. Fossett took off from the Flying M Ranch, a million-acre (404,687-hectare) pilots' retreat owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, between 8 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. on September 3, 2007, in a two-seat Bellanca Super Decathlon. Wearing a white shirt, black sweatpants, and sneakers, he reportedly told fellow pilot Mike Gilles he was "going to go out and play for a while," then took off. By midafternoon the first search planes were airborne; a Navy helicopter with infrared capabilities flew missions that night. As the days and weeks passed with no sign of Fossett, the number of planes and helicopters in the air climbed to more than 45 at a time. They were flown by Civil Air Patrol pilots from six states, Nevada and California National Guard crews, the Navy, and dozens of private aviators. Search and rescue teams from nine different counties combed the desert and mountains in 4x4s. A dive team explored the waters of Walker Lake, east of the Flying M. And 20,000 Internet users, some as far away as the Netherlands and Belize, scanned Google Earth images for Fossett's plane. By almost any measure the effort was unrivaled.

And as of mid-October it had yielded nothing. The vanishing act was inexplicable and complete, publicity-generating and speculation-inducing—a loss comparable to one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. How could a celebrated pilot go down on such a benign flight? And how could such an extensive search come up empty? "We don't have a clue what happened, not one," said Hilton spokesman Patrick Barry. But a close examination of the effort to find Fossett reveals that state and local officials did have ideas—too many of them, perhaps. The vastness of the search area combined with the hundreds of leads, most of them false, may have overwhelmed investigators so that a few key pieces of information were obscured. And despite all of the amassed resources—the sophisticated technology, the hundreds of volunteers—the campaign still proved ill equipped to plumb the deepest secrets of the Nevada wilds.

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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