Published: November 2008 Special Report: Steve Fossett Update
Zeroing In On Fossett
Text by James Vlahos

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.

In July the British tabloid News of the World reported that Fossett might have staged his disappearance to get out of financial trouble. Sourced to Robert Davis, identified as a risk assessment specialist for Lloyd’s of London, the company reportedly responsible for Fossett’s $44 million life insurance policy, and Lt. Col. Cynthia Ryan, a spokesperson for the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, the article suggested that the aviator absconded into the waiting arms of his alleged mistresses. "I’ve been doing this search and rescue for 14 years," Ryan reportedly said. "Fossett should have been found." It didn’t seem to matter that Lloyd’s denies ever knowingly employing Davis, who in turn claims that he was ambushed by a "Taliban tabloid reporter." Or that Ryan says she was severely misquoted. Or that an attorney for Fossett’s wife asserted that his estate "is large and debt free." In the echo chamber created by Fossett’s disappearance, the salacious allegations were splashed worldwide.

The irony is that while speculation grows wilder, the on-the-ground hunt for the crash site has never been more focused. Last year teams confronted a 20,000-square-mile search area; this year three new privately mounted campaigns have narrowed the area to less than a hundred square miles west of Hawthorne, Nevada. Last year searchers required planes and 4x4s to canvass the enormity; this year the crews consist primarily of hikers examining narrow canyons and tree-cloaked slopes that could never be adequately scoped from a road or the sky. In mid-July a group of six endurance athletes led by Canadian adventure racer Simon Donato explored the mountains near Bridgeport, California. Unfortunately, a week of blister-producing labor returned only litter, venomous creatures, the door of a snowcat, and Keep your chins up, lads! dispatches for the team website. In late August Robert Hyman, an Explorers Club member from Washington, D.C., and a team of 28 mountaineers and pilots searched the Wassuk Range west of Hawthorne. But they too struck out, locating, according to a press release, just a "piece of unusual cloth . . . about the size of a quarter."

The most intriguing quest, however, is being mounted by the humblest team—Mike Larson, a land surveyor for the Bureau of Reclamation, and Kelly Stephenson, who works for a John Deere distributor. They aren’t parachuting in from afar but are Carson City locals, familiar with Nevada’s convoluted desert terrain. Patient and methodical, they have conducted weekend searches since January, plumbing small swaths of wilderness on foot. They’ve done their homework. "We have compiled and evaluated technical and geospatial data, electronic and conventional mapping, personal testimony, and eyewitness accounts," Larson says. "The information was obtained from the Fossett/Hilton private search team, the Civil Air Patrol, eyewitnesses, and the National Transportation Safety Board." The result is a persuasive theory about where Fossett might have crashed.

"Based on everything I’ve read about Fossett’s character and integrity, I simply can’t believe that he would fake his disappearance," Larson says. "I just think that it was a dumb accident." Numerous people claim to have spotted the blue-and-white Super Decathlon after Fossett took off around 9 a.m. on September 3, 2007, including a California highway patrolman, a ranger at Bodie State Park, and a man in Sodaville, Nevada, known as "Cathouse Tony." Larson, like most people familiar with the case, thinks that the key witness is Flying M ranch hand Rawley Bigsby, who made the last known sighting at around 11 a.m. and was familiar with the plane, since his boss at the ranch often flew it to check up on his workers.

Searchers have been aware of Bigsby’s account since the early days after the disappearance, but the import of crucial details—including the aircraft’s speed and altitude—has only recently been recognized. Larson argues that these facts provide powerful clues as to what might have happened next. Bigsby told investigators that the plane was flying very low, "60 to 80 feet off the deck," and at "low speed," as if "looking for a place to land." At the time, the Flying M employee was at his house, Nine Mile Ranch, which has its own landing strip. He said the plane was rocking slightly from side to side and the tail was pitching up and down. Fossett might have been struggling with a mechanical problem, which would explain why he may have been trying to put the plane down at Nine Mile instead of back at the Flying M.

Bigsby lost sight of the plane as it headed east over County Road O26 past Mud Springs Canyon. At that point, Larson says, Fossett was heading into a trap. Flying dangerously low, he was rushing toward terrain rising before him on three sides. Factoring in the altitude, air temperature, aircraft age, and engine performance, Larson has calculated that the Super Decathlon’s maximum rate of ascent would have been about 500 feet a minute (half the aircraft’s maximum climb rate of a thousand feet a minute)—not good enough to ascend above the mountains and avoid crashing.

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.