My weekend searching for Steve Fossett15 Sep 2007
As I m sure most of you know adventurer and record-breaker Steve Fossett went missing on a flight in western Nevada on Labor Day. A group I m involved in tracks ameture rocket and balloon launches, primarily via ham radio. Several of the folks on the groups mailing list expressed interest in helping for the search for Fossett whatever way was possible, and so Thursday night we met and made plans to go out to Nevada and try to do some searching ourselves.
One of the group, Ian, read in a news report that Fossett went flying to scout locations for his land speed record attempt, and he knew that one salt flat that Fossett was interested in was in Eureka county. So Ian emailed the eureka county sheriff to let him know. Ian got a call back a few hours later that a geologist in a mountainous area east of eureka heard what he believed to be a distressed aircraft. The Sheriff contacted CAP about it, but the CAP was not interested in perusing the tip. So we decided that we should search the area ourselves in the interest of leaving no stone unturned in the search, as CAP had their hands full to the west in the area surrounding Fossett s departure point.
It was decided that I would fly out to Eureka on Friday, and the rest of the team would meet me in central Nevada Saturday morning. So I loaded up my plane with camping & survival gear, fueled up, and headed across the Sierras for Eureka Nevada.
Eureka is on US 50, legendary loneliest highway in the US . The flight across really gelled in my mind how expansive and formidable the terrain in Nevada really is. I flew at fifteen thousand feet to stay well above the arid alkali scrub plains between the rocky tree-covered mountains, the mountains and planes alternating at regular intervals. Civilization was sparse, and most of the area is used by the military for artillery and bombing practice. Having a wide margin of altitude over the angry unforgiving terrain below was a comfort.
I landed at Eureka and was greeted by John and Vincie, the husband and wife who run the airport for the County. They moved out from Missouri to retire, but when the pilots at the surrounding airports learned what a good mechanic John was John ended up with much more work than a retired person should have. The airport itself has a single hangar, attached to the airport office, and also attached to their home. Only one other aircraft is sitting on the tarmac next to mine. All in all a very quiet airstrip.
Of all the folks you meet, you often meet the most interesting folks in out of the way places. The whole county s population is 1900. The city itself has a population of only 650. Most of the residents are involved in Mining operations taking place in the mountains surrounding the town.
This is where I met Dan, at the Eureka Airport. He s the kind of person out in the country that looks a little rumpled and rough, talks in a slow and deliberate manner, and is very bright despite his outward appearance. Dan has lived in Eureka all of his life but Dan and Steve have gone out scouting the Diamond Valley salt flat several times. Dan is a pilot and has done Search and Rescue for the county, so was a wealth of information on where and how to search, and what places a small plane could land in the countryside. It also happened that the airport was out of fuel and would not get more until the next day, so Dan siphoned 10 gallons out of one of his planes for me to use until the fuel shipment arrived.
Sheriff Ken Jones also drove out to the airport to meet me. We talked a little about the tip he got, more about this neat plane I flew into the airstrip and he finished by telling me if I needed anything, or rides into town to give his department a call and he d send someone out to shuttle me around. The generosity of folks continued to amaze me in Eureka.
I originally was supposed to fly to Austin, NV for the night but the lack of fuel at Eureka made me decide to stay the night. John and Vincie offered to call the hotel in town for me. Unfortunately the nice hotel was full, and they said they wouldn t feel right letting me stay at one of the lesser hotels so they put me up and fed me for my stay in eureka! The hospitality they had for a stranger was amazing, and it was great to be treated like family after arriving out of the blue at their home.
In the still morning air I took off with my siphoned fuel and headed for my search area. My plan was to make north/south passes at a one mile interval. With the early morning sun the shadows were long and most of the west slope was in shade, so I did my best looking down into the mountainous forested terrain. I would have spotted someone who found a clearing and had a survivable landing. But if someone went straight in there would have been little chance of seeing him from the air. After actually doing this sort of searching I understand how planes disappear into the mountains and even thorough searches may not turn up anything.
After loading with the newly-arrived fuel and a wonderful lunch prepared by Vincie, I bid farewell to Vincie, John, and Dan, and left for Minden where the rest of the team was located. The trip back was much like the one out, and I climbed up to twelve thousand to avoid the turbulent hot air over the desert.
I landed in Minden, parked the plane. A half dozen satellite trucks sat in the parking lot, the ramp was full of Civil Air Patrol aircraft, the grass across from the airport office had the tent of the Nevada air national guard. The airport was a buzz of activity. Once I met up with the rest of my team we talked to CAP and they had no use for us, and basically no interest in the areas we searched to the east. We were told not to do any flying in their search area so we decided as a team to just go do a driving search of the areas around Mono Lake with the remaining daylight. The conventional wisdom of the day is that he was somewhere south of the Flying M Ranch. We arrived there just as the sun was setting, and the binocular search turned up nothing. We decided to check out a small nearby airstrip on our topographic chart. Off the pavement and through a dirt track and just as we were nearly to the airstrip we ran into private property flying M ranch . The ranch is a big place, stretching all the way down to Mono Lake..
There was little else we could do, so that evening the team disbanded, those who drove up drove home through the night and I flew home Sunday morning.