With Web's Help, The World Joins Search for Fossett

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

MINDEN, Nev., Sept. 13 -- The emptiness that adventure pilot Steve Fossett disappeared into at 10:30 a.m. on Labor Day appears almost endless from the air, a rugged moonscape of mountain ridges that deepen from brown to purple before dissolving into the horizon itself. There are mountains and more mountains and, between them, canyons that hide whatever may have fallen in.

"The perspective from outside is Nevada is flat, hot, with cactus and sagebrush," said Trooper Chuck Allen, a member of the highway patrol in what, in fact, is the most mountainous state in the union. And one so empty that official highway maps warn motorists to stock up on water and fuel before venturing into the interior.

"It's been an area where people have been written off for a terribly long time," said University of Nevada geography professor Paul F. Starrs.

But no one appears to be writing off Fossett -- not his family and friends, not the state of Nevada, not a worldwide network of Internet kibitzers.

In the 11 days since the aviator flew a stunt plane into the high, blue sky above the ranch of billionaire Barron Hilton, the state has spent an estimated $600,000 looking for him, officials said.

The sum does not include the 15 small planes the Civil Air Patrol grounded Thursday because of high winds, but that otherwise flies in grid patterns over a 17,000-square-mile search area -- nor another dozen private aircraft searching from the mile-long airstrip at Hilton's Flying M Ranch, nor planes and helicopters provided by neighboring states and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Internet has made the search both intensely local and truly global. Search organizers urge the public to scan satellite images of the terrain available on Google Earth. If they see something that might be the plane, they flag it to searchers, who compare the images Google purchased last week with images from two years earlier.

"Technically, it's completely simple," said volunteer Tim Ball, printing out a map in a trailer beside the fatigue-green tent that serves as search headquarters. Inside, a volunteer in a green shirt sat by a phone that has rung with calls from Poland, Russia and Japan. Beside him, two volunteers in orange shorts were hunched over laptops.

"You have the benefit of tens of thousands of eyes," Ball said. "It just needs some screening. But it's totally worth it."

A Nevada Air National Guard C-130 Hercules ascends daily to conduct the search, along with helicopters including two AH-60 Black Hawks, two OH-58 Kiowas and a Chinook. The choppers chase tips from people who think they may have spotted Fossett's plane on satellite images that Google spent an estimated $100,000 updating last week to assist the search.

"It's almost like an Amber alert," said Allen, the state trooper, "in the sense that you're trying to get as many eyes as possible out there looking for one individual."

Some tipsters are detecting very small things. Several have flagged x-shaped survey markers that from overhead may resemble a plane but, in fact, measure two feet across.

"But if you go down in these trees down there, the airplane doesn't look like an airplane anymore. It just looks like a bunch of bent metal," said Shane Goreman as he steered a Cessna 172 over a mountain ridge stippled on the left by stubby evergreens and on the right by sagebrush. Crosswinds buffeted the single-engine plane, and a swirling thermal updraft helped lift it over the Pine Nut range.

That the target is not a missing child but an adventurer renowned for his survival skills tends to shore up the official optimism. Before Fossett, 63, became the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in either a plane or a balloon, he swam the English Channel, ran marathons and climbed the highest peaks on six continents.

When he took off alone in a single-engine, aerobatic Bellanca Super Decathlon on Sept. 3, officials described it as a "joy ride," a three-hour tour into airspace he knew well from years of gliding at the Flying M. His wife, Peggy, said he carried neither extra water nor his wristwatch equipped with a homing signal.

"I think the whole thing is extremely mysterious, mostly because of Steve's nature," said Peter McMillan, an owner of the open-cockpit biplane Fossett co-piloted across the Atlantic two years ago. "He's definitely a risk-taker, but the risks are very, very calculated."

But even the most careful pilot can fall prey to the state's forbidding topography. Nevada has 300 mountain ranges, running north to south, "arrayed like an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico," in the words of a 19th-century geologist. What the unpredictable winds bring down, the terrain conceals, including at least one plane searchers looking for Fossett had not previously known of.

"This is a massive search effort. That's why we're seeing wrecks we haven't seen before," said Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford. "This is somewhat media-driven," he acknowledged. "We respond to the politics and the public pressure. I'd like to believe we would do this for any missing pilot."

Others officials flatly said they would. "The scale of the search is because this is an extremely difficult, extraordinarily mountainous terrain," said Phil Galeoto, director of Nevada's department of public safety. And some discoveries reflect technology not available in earlier searches, including cameras that capture and analyze far more than the human eye.

What is undisputed is the daunting emptiness of "Nevada -- Wide Open," as a state tourist slogan has it. The record recent growth of Las Vegas and Reno, in counties that are home to 2.3 million of Nevada's 2.6 million people, only accentuate the vacancy of everywhere else. When 47,000 people convened in the desert north of Reno earlier this month, the Burning Man festival rivaled Carson City, the state capital, in population.

The state publishes a "survival guide" for the 287 miles of Highway 50, dubbed "The Loneliest Road in America." But farther south, Highway 6, which runs east to west, is far lonelier. By day, hours pass with no sign of human life besides oncoming traffic. After dark, cattle on the pavement are a deadly hazard, and jackrabbits fall under the headlights like bowling pins.

The military finds the blank space useful. Starrs, the geography professor, recalls that the federal government detonated about 900 atomic explosions in a Rhode Island-size area it declared "virtually uninhabited," and Fossett disappeared south of airspace restricted for the Navy's "Top Gun" school and north of the high desert where the Air Force kept secret the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber. Farther south lie Yucca Mountain and Area 51.

Most of that lies beyond the search area, though officials acknowledge having no idea which direction Fossett was headed. Even so, "calling off the search, to be honest, has not even crossed our minds," said Gary Derks, duty officer for the department of public safety.

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