Published: December 2007/January 2008Special Report: The Search For Steve Fossett
Steve Fossett

The Vanishing

What went wrong in the record-setting search for Steve Fossett.

Text by and photograph by James Vlahos

Hawthorne, Nevada, is more than 100 miles southeast of Reno and 300 miles 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. 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.

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