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New mystery: Why did Steve Fossett fly into a mountain?

Wreckage from a plane belonging to Steve Fossett is seen on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008 in a handout photo released by the Mono County Sheriff's Search & Rescue. Searchers found the wreckage of Fossett's plane in California's rugged Sierra Nevada just over a year after the millionaire adventurer vanished on a solo flight, and the craft appears to have hit the mountainside head-on, authorities said Thursday. Crews conducting an aerial search late Wednesday spotted what turned out to be the wreckage in the Inyo National Forest near the town of Mammoth Lakes. (AP Photo/Mono County Sheriff's Search & Rescue)
Wreckage from a plane belonging to Steve Fossett is seen on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008 in a handout photo released by the Mono County Sheriff's Search & Rescue. Searchers found the wreckage of Fossett's plane in California's rugged Sierra Nevada just over a year after the millionaire adventurer vanished on a solo flight, and the craft appears to have hit the mountainside head-on, authorities said Thursday. Crews conducting an aerial search late Wednesday spotted what turned out to be the wreckage in the Inyo National Forest near the town of Mammoth Lakes. (AP Photo/Mono County Sheriff's Search & Rescue) Mono County Sheriff's Search & Rescue

The discovery of the wreckage of Steve Fossett's plane about 75 miles northeast of Fresno, closes one mystery but raises another:

How did he crash?

Fresno meteorologist Steve Johnson said Thursday that fierce weather, long considered a demon of pilots flying through California's Sierra Nevada mountains, probably wasn't to blame on the day that Fossett is presumed to have crashed his single-engine plane near Mammoth Lakes.

Johnson said he has reviewed National Weather Service records that show the wind was between 1 mph and 15 mph at 11,000-foot Mammoth Mountain on Sept. 3, 2007.

"The weather pattern was benign," Johnson said. "I would say weather had nothing to do with the crash."

If Johnson's conclusion is confirmed, it would make the cause of Fossett's apparent crash into a mountainside that much more difficult to explain.

The Fresno Bee last month explored the mysteries surrounding Sierra plane crashes in a series of articles called "Lost Flights: The Sierra's Deadly Legacy."

In one of the stories, experts described rotor winds -- mini-tornadoes that roar down barren slopes -- and mountain waves -- spring and fall winds from the west that can whip down the eastern Sierra at speeds up to 100 mph.

Experts also discussed the inherent danger of flying in the unpredictable region: "Most [crashes] are the result of a pilot who exceeds abilities," said Bob Follett, owner of Wofford Aviation, a charter service in Fresno.

But few would say that Fossett, 63 at the time he vanished, fit that description. The millionaire adventurer gained worldwide fame for setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders and jets. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon.

Yet the circumstantial evidence mounted Thursday to suggest that Fossett's final flight ended tragically.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, whose agency took the early lead in investigating the crash site this week because it lies just west of the Madera-Mono county line, said the wreckage appears to indicate that the plane crashed head-on into a rock.

Jeff Page, emergency management coordinator for Lyon County, Nev., who assisted in the search, said, "It was a hard-impact crash, and he would've died instantly."

Searchers Thursday identified the tail number in the wreckage as belonging to the plane Fossett was piloting when he disappeared. The debris, hidden from easy view for more than a year, littered an area longer than a football field and nearly as wide.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators reached the remote crash site Thursday. Most of the fuselage was disintegrated. The engine was found several hundred feet away from the main debris field at an elevation of 9,700 feet.

"It will take weeks, perhaps months, to get a better understanding of what happened," NTSB acting Chairman Mark Rosenker said.

Search crews and cadaver dogs scoured the steep terrain around the crash site. Rosenker said an oblong piece of bone, measuring 2 inches by 11/2 inches, was found — enough remains to test DNA.

Some personal effects also were found at the crash site.

"We found human remains, but there's very little. Given the length of time the wreckage has been out there, it's not surprising there's not very much," Rosenker said. "I'm not going to elaborate on what it is."

At an evening news conference, Anderson said the bone fragment found by one of his lieutenants had not yet been confirmed as human. He said it would be sent to a California Department of Justice lab for testing.

"We don't know if it's human. It certainly could be," Anderson said. "I refuse to speculate."

It had been 13 months since Fossett took off from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton to scout locations for an attempt to break the land-speed record in a rocket-propelled car.

His disappearance spurred a huge search that covered 20,000 square miles, cost millions of dollars and included the use of infrared technology. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February. For a while, many of his friends held out hope he survived, given his many close scrapes with death over the years.

The breakthrough -- in fact, the first trace of any kind -- came this week when a hiker found a pilot's license and other ID cards belonging to Fossett a quarter-mile from where the plane was later spotted in the Inyo National Forest.

Investigators said animals might have dragged the IDs from the wreckage while picking over Fossett's remains.

The rugged area, about 65 miles from the ranch, had been flown over 19 times by the California Civil Air Patrol during the initial search, Anderson said.

Lt. Col. Ronald Butts, a pilot who coordinated the Civil Air Patrol search effort, said gusty conditions along the mountains' upper elevations hampered efforts to search by air, as did the small amount of debris that remained after the plane crashed.

"Everything we could have done was done," Butts said.

Searchers had concentrated on an area north of Mammoth Lakes, given what they knew about sightings of Fossett's plane, his travel plans and the amount of fuel he had.

Pilots said Thursday's news provides yet another cautionary tale.

"It makes you consider what you might encounter," said Art Friedman, a Santa Monica pilot who frequently flies along the eastern Sierra. "I have encountered downdrafts of more than 1,000 feet per second."

Jeff Sedenko, owner of Bakersfield-based Golden State Air Charter, said he's familiar with the mountain waves that can cripple an airplane.

"The possibility was he may have had some engine difficulty and got boxed into an area he couldn't get out of and tried to attempt a landing," said Sedenko, who also wondered whether Fossett might have suffered a medical emergency.

"It's kind of a mystery," Sedenko said. "We may never know what happened."

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