email a friend iconprinter friendly iconSpecial Report: Steve Fossett Update
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Larson has reviewed this scenario with Jim Struhsaker, a senior investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who prepared the agency’s accident report on Fossett. Officially speaking, Struhsaker says the theory that Fossett was flying too low to rise above the mountains is only speculation, but personally, he finds it plausible. "Basically, the mountain can outclimb the airplane," he says. Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, who was recruited last fall by Hilton to help coordinate the Flying M’s own search effort, also believes that Larson and Stephenson are targeting the most probable crash zone. He notes that earlier in Fossett’s fateful journey, just after 9 a.m., the aviator was flying east in a roughly similar location but at a higher altitude. A radar log shows what may have been Fossett’s plane crossing the Wassuks about 15 miles south of Hawthorne. But after Bigsby’s sighting around 11 a.m., there is no second radar track showing Fossett’s plane on the east side of the Wassuks. This suggests to Evinger that Fossett didn’t make it across on his second attempt.

In mid-August I drove to Nevada to join Larson and Stephenson for a day of searching. (I have a particular interest in their theory because they’ve zeroed in on the same region that I identified as promising in "The Vanishing," Adventure, December 2007/ January 2008.) We met the night before in Larson’s garage, reviewed multicolored topo maps, and jotted down GPS waypoints. We watched an animated Google Earth flyover on a laptop computer that showed the hypothetical flight path. "This might have been the last thing Fossett saw before he died," Stephenson said.

At dawn we parked by a dirt road in a desolate valley on the west side of the Wassuks, rode ATVs up rock-strewn tracks, and set off on foot. Until dusk we hiked a dozen miles through trailless desert, the three of us spaced by a few hundred yards and progressing in parallel courses so as not to miss any terrain. Exploring the area around Mud Springs Canyon, we crossed plateaus, went up arroyos, and topped ridges. Juniper and piñon pine hid the ground until we were right upon it; the beds of washes were invisible until we walked down into them. We didn’t find Fossett. But Larson and Stephenson may be a little closer to achieving that goal. Their search area is about 18 square miles, a major chunk of mountain and desert that will take several months to cover, but not an impossible undertaking. If their theory is correct, they’re no longer searching for a needle in a haystack—merely a needle in a bale of hay.

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