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Published: November 2008Special Report: Steve Fossett Update

Zeroing In On Fossett

Text by James Vlahos
Photo Illustration by Mark Yankus

Writer's Update: The first time I looked for Steve Fossett, in September 2007, search and rescue crews were despondent—the desert was large, Fossett was small, and how could he ever be found? The second time, however, nearly a year later, the searchers I met were seriously pumped. As documented in “Zeroing In On Fossett” (ADVENTURE, November 2008), three new volunteer teams were scouring the desert and mountains, the unaffiliated searchers united by a common belief: Fossett’s wreck would be found, and soon.

And they were right. On September 29 ski shop owner Preston Morrow, not affiliated with any search group, stumbled upon Fossett’s Federal Aviation Administration identification while hiking off trail in the wilderness west of Mammoth Lakes, California. Two days later, searchers found the remains of his Bellanca Super Decathlon, which apparently had been flown into a mountainside of rock. The engine was thrown several hundred feet from the disintegrated fuselage. At the time of this writing, Fossett’s remains had not been found.

Over the past year, thousands of people have been involved in the quest to find Fossett, and they fell into two camps. The first consisted of people who believed that if you parsed every shred of evidence—satellite imagery, performance characteristics of the plane, the accounts of eyewitnesses who may have spotted it—you could make an educated guess about where he crashed. The experts were far from certain, but the smart money was on the area southwest of Hawthorne, Nevada, in the Wassuk Range near Mud Springs Canyon and Corey Peak. The second group of Fossett-hounds, however, believed that the aviator’s whereabouts were fundamentally unguessable. A little plane can travel a long ways in a few hours, resulting in a search area of nearly 20,000 square miles. “The only thing we know for certain is that he left the ranch heading south,” Lyon County (Nevada) Undersheriff Joe Sanford said last year.

It would appear that the agnostics were correct. Fossett was found by chance, not through detective work, and he was roughly 50 miles from where everybody was looking so fervently this summer. Was it foolish to analyze the scanty clues when finding him was ultimately a lottery? Not necessarily. After news broke of the discovery I dug through my notes from last fall. It turns out that there was a clue, a credible one reported to authorities, placing what might have been Fossett’s plane very near the area where it was ultimately found. A California Highway Patrol Officer, Bill Thompson, had stopped a speeding car on Highway 395 near Mammoth Lakes at 10:50am on September 3, the morning the famous aviator went missing. He saw a white plane flying south and very low before it banked over a ridge and disappeared. Maybe it was Fossett, maybe it wasn’t, but Thompson is now more curious than ever. “After you see a plane like that you look for a plume of smoke,” he said when I called him this morning. The ultimate takeaway of the Fossett search? The value of using clues is obvious—but knowing which ones is not.

Special Report: Zeroing In On Fossett

A year has come and gone since Steve Fossett—one of the most celebrated aviators in recent history, the first person to fly around the world alone and nonstop by both hot-air balloon and plane—took off from Nevada’s Flying M Ranch, the pilots’ retreat owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, and flew into oblivion. In the months that followed, the most extensive search and rescue effort ever mounted for a person in the U.S. failed to find Fossett or the two-seat Bellanca Super Decathlon he was flying. And this summer, in the vacuum of uncertainty, conspiracy theories swirled even as a new round of highly targeted searches got under way.

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