Steve Fossett and the Killer Wave

Nearly two years ago, I flew my small plane to the Minden, Nevada, airport to pursue a story on the search for Steve Fossett. I taxied my plane up to the terminal, walked into the service desk at the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) and found myself smack dab in the middle of a planning session for the search team. Wreckage of Steve Fossett’s plane, found in the California mountains.

They wondered how I got in there (the rest of the media was cordoned off in the parking lot). “I flew…and boy, are my arms tired,” said I. The room broke up, and next thing I knew I was talking with Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. I asked her if she would be willing to fly with me over the search area and within an hour or so we were airborne, with a shooter in the back seat flying low and slow over rugged mountains.

It was quickly evident how big and daunting that haystack is out there. When most people think about the desert, they think of the Sahara –- you know, an endless sandbox. The desert on the Nevada-California border is not nearly as blank a slate. The hills are rugged and covered with sagebrush — except near the occasional river, which supports thirstier flora. On top of that, Nevada’s mining heritage has left the ground littered with all kinds of detritus – old jalopies, mattresses, rail cars and the like. Their glints in the sunshine were constant, distracting red herrings. And in fact, the searchers discovered a few old plane wrecks that had been missing for many years.

For the year between Fossett’s disappearance and the discovery of the wreckage of the Bellanca Super Decathlon he was flying that morning,  the whispers and rumors grew that he might have made himself “disappear.” Ilooked into this for a long time and could never find a plausible motive for him to bow out, get some surgery and retreat to Argentina.

The “grassy knoll” crowd was finally silenced when DNA testing of the fragments of human remains found near the wreckage proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Fosett reached the end of the line on that mountain near Mammoth Lakes that Sunday morning September 3, 2007.

The mystery was solved when hikers found some of Fossett’s personal effects. The remains of the airplane were about a half mile away -did he surviv the initial impact and succumb to injuries later – or were his remains dragged away by animals? No way to know. Federal crash investigators say the plane hit the ground at a high rate of speed – and then burned. If he survived, Fossett left probably this world terrified and in terrible pain.

Most of us had a hunch at the outset that Fossett flew into a box canyon and smacked a mountain at a high rate of speed, leaving little for searchers to spot from the air. They say you should always go with your first gut instinct on these things –- and so it goes in this case. The National Transportation Safety Board says he was heading north at the time of the crash – the opposite direction he was flying when radar contact was lost. So he clearly realized he was headed for trouble and made a 180 (a u-turn). [You can read the full narrative here.]

One of the cardinal rules of mountain flying is to always be in a position that you can turn toward lowering terrain. The experts say it is a good idea to approach a ridge at a 45 degree angle so you can preserve your escape route.

The wind that morning near the crash site was blowing from the south-southwest between 20 and 30 mph. So before he made his turn, Fossett would have been flying up a hill and into the wind. This is the most dangerous place to be if you are flying in mountains. Imagine the wind acting as water does. On the windward side of a ridge, it flows upward – creating strong updrafts (which glider pilots covet). But on the leeward side of a ridge, the wind can create strong downdrafts. Anytime, the wind exceeds 20 knots (23 mph), pilots are advised to put a little more space between them and the “cumulous granite” below (2,000 feet above the terrain is considered a prudent place to be).

But Fossett was out on a “Sunday drive” as his widow described it. When he was last seen, he was about 150-200 feet above the ground taking in the sites. At the altitude where he crashed (10,000 feet above sea level), his airplane was only able to climb at a rate of 300 feet per minute. The experts say the downdrafts Fossett encountered pushed him to the ground at 400 feet per minute. He had flown himself into a dead end.

We are left with the sad irony that a man who took so many risks and survived so many close calls in perilous situations fell victim to an sightseeing tour in a docile plane close to its home on a holiday weekend. In his book, Fossett writes at length about his meticulous planning and careful attention to detail. He was very precise in calculating the risk –- and was really not a daredevil. But aviation is very unforgiving of complacency, and that airplane and that canyon were not impressed with Fossett’s record of amazing accomplishments.

No one is bulletproof –- not even Steve Fossett.