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 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.
A Khaki Abyss
The renewed ground search began on Saturday morning. Glenn Bunch, president of Mineral County Search and Rescue, stood in the desert 15 miles south of Hawthorne and briefed two dozen women and men—myself included—in neon rescue garb. Most were middle-aged and heavyset; there was a beefy man who looked like a retired professional wrestler and a woman who faintly resembled Dog the Bounty Hunter. Four-wheel-drive trucks and all-terrain vehicles encircled Bunch like besieged Conestoga wagons on the frontier. He gestured at maps taped to the side of his Ford F-350. Fossett’s plane had held enough fuel for about four hours of flight, translating to a search zone of some 20,000 square miles, an area larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Our search was concentrated in and around Powell, Johnston, and Jim Canyons, three parallel gashes in the Wassuk Range. “Let’s go find him, guys,” Bunch said.
I was paired with Harold Dimmick, who wore a plaid shirt over dusty jeans and had a chest-length white beard of the sort favored by gold miners circa 1849. He was quiet as we ascended a mountainside on a dirt road, perhaps because my seat in his Jeep had been freed up only after he agreed to abandon his best friends, his dogs Rosie and Wendy.
Nevada, especially as seen from I-80, can seem like a giant, khaki abyss. The population density is low—outside of the counties that contain Reno and Las Vegas, there are only three people per square mile—but the topography is hardly uniform. Nevada has 300 named mountain ranges, more than any other state. Much of the ground is treeless and can be scanned reasonably from a plane or 4x4. But the dips and swells are deceptive. At one point I wandered off and dropped into a wash that I hadn’t even noticed from the car. I had traveled only 30 yards, but when I turned around, the Jeep had vanished from view. The summits around us climbed to 11,000 feet; juniper and piñon pine cloaked the upper slopes and valleys. It was obvious why finding Fossett was so hard. In many places you’d practically have to kick the downed plane before you discovered it.