email a friend iconprinter friendly iconSpecial Report: The Search For Steve Fossett
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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.”

Too Few Boots

On my last day in Nevada I drove up a dirt road toward Mud Springs Canyon and met a prospector for the local Borealis Mine. He declined to provide his name—talk spreads quickly in Mineral County—but he shared his opinions liberally. He knew from scouting work for the mine that the mountains nearby had steep, narrow, and tree-cloaked canyons a thousand or more feet deep. They couldn’t be adequately scoped from the air, and many could be accessed only on foot. The search teams, he accurately noted, rarely strayed from their 4x4s. “I know this country, and when I saw them come through, I had to laugh,” he said. “Just because you’re search and rescue doesn’t mean you know how to find someone.”

The criticism was harsh and somewhat unfair. The search area for Fossett was so vast that planes, helicopters, trucks, and ATVs were essential. The searchers I met were deeply knowledgeable about the terrain and committed to finding Fossett. But—and there’s no delicate way to put this—physical fitness didn’t seem to be a priority for many of them. They were passionate about hunting, fishing, and ATVing, but they weren’t backcountry types. These were traditional search and rescue operations, managed by county sheriffs’ departments, not hard-core wilderness teams, the kind you find in the country’s marquee national parks.

This hurt the effort. Here I stood in the area pinpointed by the investigation’s two best clues, the radar tag and the eyewitness. It was rugged terrain, the sort that is particularly adept at keeping its secrets. And it was obvious that it hadn’t been adequately searched. In the past month some of the most advanced technologies in the history of search and rescue had aided the quest. Maybe what was needed was a lot more boots on dirt.

The Search Unending

“They’re going to find him on a mountainside,” said John Kugler, an old friend of Fossett’s, the day after he disappeared. “He’s going to be hungry and want some good food.” Another close friend, Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson, wrote in Time magazine that “it is hard to say goodbye to a true American hero when a part of me can’t help thinking he will still walk out of that harsh and unforgiving desert that encompassed so much of what he loved about the great outdoors.”

People around the world, and not just those who knew Fossett personally, wanted the pilot to be found, even as the odds of survival plummeted. They wanted him to turn up late for lunch, dusty but otherwise okay. “People don’t like when their heroes vanish without a trace,” says Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. “It offends the senses. Everybody expects a happy ending to the search.”

After I returned home from Nevada, I called Gary Derks. We talked through a few details of the case, and then I made the mistake of asking him to confirm that the air search to find Fossett had been called off.

“Suspended,” he interrupted to say. “Suspended. There’s a big difference.” He paused to let me absorb his words. “As additional information comes forward, the search will no doubt be resumed.”

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