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

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.

Dimmick stopped frequently and scanned the surroundings with binoculars. Around midday he steered the Jeep onto a rutted track that showed only the faintest signs of use, and after a while we got out to hike toward a ridgeline. To my right a hundred yards away, I spotted a promising metallic glint. When I got closer, I cursed: The reflection came from two balloons, the foil kind, that had drifted off from some faraway birthday party.

Nobody else was any luckier that day, nor on Sunday. “I really thought that these coordinates were good,” Derks said later. “Obviously I was wrong.” At the end of the afternoon, as the sun tinted the peaks purple, searchers gathered by Bunch’s truck. “Let’s face it,” Dimmick said. “Because this guy is rich and famous, this search has gone on way longer than it would have for anybody else.”

Bunch said that some areas had been checked up to six times. Mark Marshall, Fossett’s staff pilot, had called a couple of days earlier and offered to pay team expenses. “He told me, ‘Don’t stop searching because you don’t have enough money.’ Well, it’s not lack of money that’s stopping us. We have run out of places to search.”

White Noise

No decision in missing-person work is more fundamental than the one that defines the search area. You start by taking a map and placing a pin at the person’s last 100 percent known location. From there you draw concentric circles outward, with the assumption that the POD—probability of detection—diminishes the farther out you go. The final ring constrains the search, and past it you write “ROW,” or rest of world. It’s a quiet acknowledgment that no matter how exhaustive your efforts, the lost person may be somewhere else, unknowably beyond.

As the search for Fossett wore on, the ROW hypothesis gained steam. Dennis Bunch, Glenn’s son and one of the Mineral County searchers, was particularly versed in the unfounded rumors. Fossett had a lover and they ran off to start a new life together. He had financial problems to escape. He was kidnapped in a plot involving the U.S. military, extraterrestrials, and the late John Denver. “Maybe we haven’t found him because he doesn’t want to be found,” Dennis said.

Speculation was understandable in the absence of solid clues. As is common for a small-plane pilot at a private airstrip, Fossett did not file a flight plan with the FAA. Less typically, he didn’t tell anyone on the ground where specifically he was headed. He left behind his “go” bag, which contained a cell phone, satellite phone, and GPS unit. “Fossett wasn’t going anywhere in particular because when he does, he dresses for whatever task he’s looking at. He also takes his equipment with him, and that was left sitting on a bed in his room,” said Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford, one of the lead investigators. “This was a pleasure cruise.” Fossett had a radio but never made a distress call. The Decathlon had an emergency locator device that was supposed to be triggered by a hard landing, but no signals were received. “The only thing we know for certain is that he left the ranch heading south,” Sanford said.

The center pin on the map in the Fossett search is the Flying M, where guests like Sylvester Stallone and Morgan Freeman go to hunt quail, ride horses, shoot skeet, and fly-fish. After Fossett failed to return on September 3, Hilton put out a call for help and dozens of volunteers responded, many of them high-profile aviator friends of Fossett’s. They were dubbed the “Flying M Air Force.” Dick Rutan—brother of Burt, who mounted the first private flight into suborbital space—flew search missions. Terry Delore, who had set ten glider world records with Fossett, served as a spotter. Einar Enevoldson, the revered NASA test pilot, was one of many participants in the nightly roundtable discussions. Neil Armstrong was another. They considered Fossett’s skills and flying habits, possible routes and potential problems.

In the days following, hundreds of people came forward claiming to have seen Fossett’s plane. One of the most probable sightings was made at about 11 a.m. on September 3. A Flying M ranch hand named Rawley Bigsby was sitting on his front porch when he saw the plane fly over. Bigsby’s boss at the ranch often flew the Decathlon to check up on his workers, so Bigsby knew exactly what the plane looked like. The last he saw of the Decathlon, it was heading east over Mud Springs Canyon.

A torrent of leads also came from people scanning satellite images from Google Earth. They used a system called Mechanical Turk, which coordinated the efforts of thousands of searchers who spent up to 14 hours a day examining map quadrants online. The effort was hailed by the press as a triumph of “crowdsourcing” and as a revolution in search and rescue. The actual payoff, however, was negligible. Many supposed sightings of Fossett’s plane on the ground turned out to be images of other planes in flight. “I love technology,” said Major Ryan. “But this is a case of a bunch of people trying to do something they don’t have the training for.”

In retrospect, the volume of leads may have done more harm than good, wasting valuable time and obscuring what was perhaps the only smoking gun in the Fossett case. Just hours into the search Lt. Guy Loughridge, a Civil Air Patrol expert analyst, picked up a radar log that looked promising, depicting somebody just noodling around in the airspace. It was at a low altitude, about 2,000 feet. It looked just like a pilot on a pleasure jaunt—a pilot like Fossett.

The location, furthermore, was over Powell and Jim Canyons, which sit just to the east of Mud Springs Canyon, where Bigsby said he last saw the famous aviator. Cursory air searches based on the log were made early in the month, but the vital importance of the clue—Sanford calls it “the only credible radar track we’ve been able to locate”—wasn’t recognized until late September, when Derks renewed the search. It turns out that our operation south of Hawthorne, during which I spotted two balloons, wasn’t based on a hot new lead but rather on three-week-old information.

The Final Flight

In mid-September a psychic was brought to the Flying M. “You are needing me,” she reportedly told those there. Fossett had encountered engine trouble, she said. He tried to find a safe landing place but crashed into a mountainside. “He is in a dark place, covered with white, powdery dirt, with one arm hanging out.” The psychic was operating in the realm of pure conjecture, but so, too, were investigators. And almost every theory formulated had numerous sensible reasons against it.

Something may have gone wrong with the Decathlon, but mechanical failure is rarely the cause of accidents involving small planes. Pilot incapacitation—a heart attack, a seizure, a stroke—was also a remote possibility, though Fossett, 63, was in good health. News reports, meanwhile, implied that Fossett might have made a mistake while taking chances in an unfamiliar stunt plane. But Fossett knew the Decathlon, which Robert Szego, president of the Bellanca-Champion Club, calls “an excellent, safe, and responsive machine.” Fossett, furthermore, wasn’t a daredevil. “He’s not a crop duster. He never was,” says Rick Blakemore, a friend and fellow pilot.

The theory that has been considered most intently concerns the weather. Both Bigsby’s sighting and the radar track place Fossett near mountain peaks where dangerous downdrafts are found. In 1999 three highly regarded glider pilots who departed from the airport in nearby Minden perished in wind-related accidents. Major Ryan described September 3 as “a really delightful day to go flying.” But just a day later conditions were so bad that some search planes were grounded and others were unable to fly low enough to scan effectively. “There have been times when I’ve been flying in the wind and my blood turns cold,” says Adam Mayberry, a pilot familiar with the area.

To better understand how downdrafts work, imagine gushing river water hitting a rock. On the front side of the rock water shoots upward. But on the back it dives into a dangerous hole. Air currents work in a similar fashion. When gusting winds hit a mountainside, they careen upward. That’s how glider pilots can soar for hours on the windward sides of ridges. On the leeward sides, however, the air shoots powerfully down.

Aviators are taught to monitor wind speeds and approach mountain ranges at a 45-degree angle, so that if a downdraft presents itself, a 45-degree turn will lead out of harm’s way. A particularly strong wind current can cause an elevation loss of over 1,500 feet a minute. Most planes, including Fossett’s Decathlon, can climb only about 1,000 feet a minute. “It could have happened that in crossing a ridgeline, an unexpected downdraft knocked the aircraft down,” says Lieutenant Loughridge.

Downdrafts don’t inevitably lead to crashes. With his extensive balloon and sailplane experience, Fossett would have been particularly adept at identifying and managing the risks. But expertise in a particular endeavor is not a guarantee of safety. In fact, it can work against you, according to scientists in the field of risk analysis. The rate of death for experienced kayakers, for example, is nearly four times higher than it is among inexperienced ones. A study of 622 U.S. avalanche incidents between 1972 and 2001 found that people with avalanche training made more risk perception errors than people without.

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.”