Steve Fossett disappearance

In this new age of technology, why haven’t we been able to find Steve Fossett?

Funny, I was just thinking about Fossett last week.

I used to live in the Mojave Desert. My dad and I used to fly out to Las Vegas for lunch. (OK, so we’d each get some stick time. Lunch is as good an excuse as any.) The route from WJF to LAS is well-traveled. Still, if you stray a bit you can get into some mountainous areas where no one ever goes. From what I’ve heard Fossett was flying in a much more remote area. So the first problem is this: Deserts are big. Airplanes are small.

Another thing that makes airplanes hard to find is that they don’t always look like airplanes when they crash. You can have Hole in the Ground, Corkscrew or Auger, Creaming or Smear, The Four Winds, Hedge-trimming, Splash… Any of these will or might make an airplane not look like an airplane. Fossett was flying a Citabria, IIRC. This is a small light aircraft made of metal tubing covered with fabric. In a violent crash it may ‘deform’ more than an all-metal airplane. (e.g., fabric can be torn off and blown away by wind, etc.)

Airplanes have ELTs that are supposed to activate in a crash. They don’t always. They can be manually activated as well, if the pilot or passenger is able. However there’s a possibility they can be damaged in a crash. ISTR there was no ELT signal from Fossett’s aircraft.

What was his Last Known Position? On such a flight as Fossett’s, there might not be a lot of information. His LKP might have been the airport he took off from. He intended to go a certain direction, but the beauty of General Aviation is that you can go anywhere on a whim.

So his rough position may have been uncertain, the terrain is rugged to that a crash site may be hidden from view, the airplane might not look like an airplane, there was not ELT… Sadly, Fossett is not the first pilot to take off never to be seen again. He won’t be the last.

The Civil Air Patrol (volunteers who often spend a lot out of their own pockets) do their best (sometimes dying in their efforts to help others), but as I sad it’s a big desert and a little airplane.

The area he disappeared in is both gigantic and the terrain is varied and inhospitable. His emergency locator device didn’t seem to work and rescuers didn’t have much hope after that. Search patrols actually found the wreckage of several other aircraft while they were looking for them. Many were decades old proving how hard searching the area is.

Small planes can turn into virtually nothing if they hit the ground at a steep enough angle. For a comparison point, a Learjet vanished in New Hampshire on Christmas Eve 1995.. That was a charter business jet with two pilots on board that was in communication with Air Traffic Control on approach to landing. The pilots made a series of mistake and the plane simply vanished and an intense search with the help of hundreds of people and lots of small aircraft could not find a thing even with the help of ATC records. It was found three years later deep in the woods by a forester. New Hampshire is very rural in parts but the area where the jet was found was hardly as uninhabited as the area where Steve Fossett and the plane was many times larger.

There are simply too many debris piles of all types in a given area to sort out the ones you want. These are extremely large geographical areas we are talking about and, unless you know precisely where to look, visual scanning from the air is too hard without getting lucky.

It is remarkable how in this day and age yachts go missing for good. We are not so all-powerful as we would like to think when faced with the forces of nature.

I found this page that contains some crash site photos (not from the Fossett search area). Some of the sites are rather difficult to pick out. The link is to a Flickr account, and I don’t know if it will allow hot-linking. If it doesn’t, try copying and pasting the URL.

Crash site photos.

This page has a photo of a crash site. The wreckage doesn’t look much like an aircraft. Most civil aircraft are predominantly white, which can make them difficult to see in the snow.

The Cessna 182 in the photo on this page is more or less intact. But notice how it blends in with its surroundings, and imagine trying to find it from an airplane flying at search altitude.

What Johnny L. A. and Shagnasty said. If the OP can find a copy of the March 2008 issue of Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine, there is a pretty good 8-page article by Michael Behar on the search for Fossett’s plane. Basically the factors that made it difficult to locate the wreckage were:

  1. A very large area to search – Fossett took off with about four hours worth of fuel, giving a search radius of about 240 miles (if he were making a round trip) or 480 miles if he were traveling one way. The matter was complcated by apparent confusion over Fossett’s intentions, i.e. where exactly he was going. Apparently some 30,000 square miles (quoted as an area about the size of Maryland) were overflown before the search was called off.

  2. Mountainous terrain – Nevada, where the search was centered, is crossed by dozens of mountain ranges, making it systematic low-altitude searches very difficult. In addition, the article speculates that the ELT signal from Fossett’s plane, if triggered at all, may have been blocked by the terrain, and the article gives an example of a crash site hidden so well by vegetation that even though a rough fix was given by the ELT, hikers had to go in to find it.

Although numerous Air National Guard aircraft equipped with sophisticated sensors were indeed used, much of the search was carried out by volunteers of the Civil Air Patrol, mostly using conventional light aircraft and their eyeballs. The search did in fact find at least six wrecked aircraft, but all of these turned out to be previously-known accident sites.

I do not see this as a debate so much as a General Question (that is being answered).

Off to GQ before someone starts arguing.

Actual eye-witness report! I was visiting Hawthorne, NV, when Fossett disappeared. The airport there was where a lot of the planes involved in the search took off. These guys went…um, “balls to the wall” is a phrase sometimes used. The search planes were just all over. The first few days, they even had a C-130 involved (!), which I got to see making low passes.
We spent a lot of time goofing around in the countryside, and it’s ALL countryside out there. Where Fossett apparently went down is one big region of mountains and canyons, many of them forested. VAST is a good way to describe it. “Really easy to get lost in” is another way; big areas are pretty much roadless. To add to searchers’ difficulties, it had just rained heavily, causing some impressive landslides and raising the rivers to levels where if anything was in them, those things are not there now.
So, will Fossett ever be found? Anything’s possible, but don’t join any betting pools on when.

I remember an article on Fossett’s disappearance, in the Economist IIRC. During the search they found quite a few planes that had disappeared many years before by chance, so perhaps it’ll be during a search for someone else that turns up Fossett’s body and wreckage.

Lots of previous posts have stated how difficult it is to search such a large & rough area.

The second reason is that nobody cares enough to pay for the amount of technology that would be needed to do a full search.

Id just like to point out that although the people who searched for Fossett didn’t find his plane, they did find several other crash sites, from many years ago. Isn’t it ironic?

I think that’s a little unfair.

The Civil Air Patrol (Official site) does all it can to locate missing persons. They make multiple passes over the search grids to increase the probability of finding the search objective. According to Search Theory, multiple search passes over an area will increase the chances of finding the target. One of the slides in the CAP Search Crew presentation shows the best cumulative chance to be 95%. So even a thorough search still has a chance of coming up empty. Searches will be conducted until all reasonable chances of finding the target are exhausted. It’s not like someone says, ‘This is costing too much.’ It’s more like the Mission Commander says, ‘We’ve looked at every probably place based on the pilot’s LKP and endurance multiple times. Chances are that if we haven’t found him yet, we’re not going to by conducting a systematic search. We’ll have to suspend the active search until we get more information.’

Fossett did have more assets looking for him than most people do, but he went missing in a much larger place than a lot of people get lost in.

You want irony? Well then, just consider the fact that while looking for Steve Fossett, searchers found several other crash sites.

This has been pretty much answered.

I used to work in parallel with CAP with the Colorado Ground Search and Rescue Patrol. We primarily went after planes in the mountains.

We had three jobs.

  1. Get to the plane if it was found and evacuate survivors or bodies.

  2. Interrogate (that’s a harsh word) people that may be under the planned route. Asking if someone had seen/heard a plane on such and such date. That rarely turned up anything as people don’t usually pay a lot of attention to a plane unless it’s real low, or seems to be having problems.

  3. Act as observers in a CAP plane so the pilot can focus more on flying.

I did a lot of training with CAP. Mostly rope work for rescue and evacuation. Trained with Chinooks on the Jungle Penatrator.

But I never flew as an observer. Anecdotal evidence from my brother and other people in the group convinces me that finding a small aircraft is exceedingly difficult. Especially in rugged terrain where north slopes are in shade and southern facing slopes may blind you from the snow reflecting sun.

OP? Heck I think I’ll look for that myself.

I’d like to point that out too, it wouldn’t be ironic, just redundant. Linky.

It was already redundant when you posted the first time, considering it had been mentioned twice by then.

Isn’t that a little ironic?

Like rain on your wedding day?

Which is why I said what you quoted :slight_smile:

Posting without reading the full thread is getting to be a habit of mine, I think I’ve seen too many of those “FIRST!” posts on AICN.