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Steve fossett and his airplane missing- the most likely scenario?

  1. Sep 18, 2007 #1
    What has happened to Steve Fossett - the aviator who went missing two weeks ago - it is thought somewhere in Nevada while flying his light aircraft - a plane like this one:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8KCAB_Decathlon
    He spoke on his radio about half way through his fuel load and when he was just south of Walker Lake.Did he run out of fuel,did his airplane explode,did turbulence from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains force him to crash,is sabotage a possibility,a heart attack or stroke at altitude,could the sun have got in his eyes and made him hit something,a strike by wild birds,did he have problems switching fuel tanks (John Denver died switching fuel tanks),did the fact that he didn't
    file a flight plan mean he was going to be flying over territory he was familiar with from previous flights.,Why didn't the emergency beacon on the airplane activate -was it blown up by an explosion,did it have flat batteries,could the beacon be working in a deep ravine but with a beam too narrow to reach available satellites,are weather conditions in the upper atmosphere inhibiting the signal,did fossett manage to land the airplane gently and then perish afterwards ( could he still be alive and if so why hasn't he sent a signal of some kind ),is the airplane under water,snow,mud,are the satellites working properly,
    was he hit by lightening,a microburst (sudden downdraft of cold air)could someone in a signal detection centre be receiving the beacon signal but deliberately ignoring it!? Is the computer software that alerts rescue service operators of the signal from the older type of beacon Fossett is believed to have on his airplane faulty? Have similar beacons successfully alerted the rescue services recently?
    Was Fossett's airplane suitable for flying over the terrain he was crossing and as someone who takes risks could he have been pushing his airplane too hard?
    Is it possible he got lost in mist and had a faulty instrument panel.Are there any unusual magnetic anomalies in the rocks in Nevada that could have thrown his compass off course? The fact that he didn't radio for help suggests that there wasn't much time before he hit the ground.Or was he behind a mountain and out of radio contact?
    How far away can an airplane be heard by the human ear - this could narrow down possible crash sites.Why have people checked the satellite images of Nevada and not found anything - is the airplane in pieces that are too small to be seen,are the pieces hidden by trees (which are changing colour for Fall),are the people looking at the satellite images too inexpert to be able to identify the parts of a crashed airplane.Are the satellite images of insufficient resolution,or perhaps they are not even covering the right area
    and Fossett did not fly where he would be reasonably expected to fly.What do you think?
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 19, 2007 #2
    I think you got it covered.
  4. Sep 20, 2007 #3


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    crash? :tongue:
  5. Sep 20, 2007 #4
    With SARSAT emergy/crash locator beacons, hence, crash sites are located within minutes. Beacons are supposed to start working on impact.

    Add to the possibilities: deliberate disapperance. The aircraft may have landed on a remote location, with all kind of scenarios following.
  6. Sep 20, 2007 #5
  7. Sep 20, 2007 #6


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  8. Sep 20, 2007 #7
    What colour was Steve Fossett's plane - can't they get someone to write a computer programme that can pick out objects of a certain colour on satellite photos and other photos.Or a computer programme that can pick out certain shapes - from previous airplane crashes they must know that some debris shapes will appear more than others.Also wouldn't fragments of metal be shiny and be shining in a small area - say within one hundered yards of a crash ? Are there any burnt trees in the search area - these would show up even on black and white photos.If he crashed into a lake where is the oil slick or bits of wood and canvas - his airplane wasn't just made from metal? Did Foseett show any signs of being ill before he took off- any coughing,mention of headaches to someone,had he been drinking alcohol the night before,working too hard? He was an expert at flying long distances at high altitude but was he so knowledgeable at flying low down - for example over a lake like Lake Walker which local fishermen say is notorious for its peculiar weather and wind patterns? His plane has a stall speed of 55 mph so if he was flying slowly to look at something closely,did a sudden gust of wind or turbulence take him into the ground?
    What could he have been looking at - a natural feature of a mountain,some wild animals,another crashed plane? Did he climb steeply to get over a mountain and then travelling at low speed get hit by
    wind as he crossed a ridge,could ice have formed on the wings and lowered their aerodynamic performance?The plane he was in was designed to fly well upside down so this must mean that its ability to fly normally was compromised and so it wouldn't be so stable as a "normal" airplane.
    A jet aircraft exploded spontaneously over the sea as it was approaching New York about ten years ago.A spark in a near-empty fuel tank was suspected.Can this happen to propeller-based craft?
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2007
  9. Sep 20, 2007 #8

    jim mcnamara

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    Sounds like Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart -- deja vu all over again. :)

    The guy is
    1. dead
    2. alive but wants us to think he is dead

    end of story....

    Why do we have to obsess on stuff like this? Billions of humans died without a trace over the past several millenia. This is the media nosiness at its low water mark, I think. Missing persons in Albuquerque lists an average of ~10 new people a month. A lot are never found, or are hidden/hiding.
  10. Sep 20, 2007 #9


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    Only the new 406Mhz beacons have GPS to give a crash site position, the older 121Mhz are just direction finders it's often difficult to locate in bad terrain. Neither are required for GA flights.
    And a large proportion (upt 50%!) fail to activate in a crash or activate but the antenea is destroyed.

    Don't rely on technology - tell someone where you are going and don't assume that it can't happen to you because you are experienced. Even if you don't fly it's good advice for a hiking trip.
  11. Sep 20, 2007 #10


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    Especially on a motorized trip. You can get deeper into the woods on a dirt bike or snowmobile in 1/2 hour than you can walk out in a day, under many circumstances. I was over 20 miles into the woods on old logging roads last week (fly fishing ponds) when I lost a belt on my pickup. Luckily, that belt only runs the power steering pump, so the truck would stay running and I could drive back out, though tight corners were tough to negotiate. My wife knew where I would be, but given the fact that I often decide to stay and get the evening hatches, she might not have alerted anyone until at least 9:00-10:00pm.
  12. Sep 20, 2007 #11
    JIM MCNAMARA said:
    "Why do we have to obsess on stuff like this? "

    Because even if he is dead it would still be nice for his family if they could find out what happened to him or even just where he is.And there is a public interest question because if Fossett's old-type beacon did not work properly then there is a case for saying that the law should require airplanes to have the modern beacons - think of the money it would save on search and rescue and it would lessen the risk to searchers too because they would spend less time doing their dangerous jobs.And innocent passengers in someone else's plane have a right to be as safe as possible.Also, this is an interesting problem for scientists:how to find the most likely location of somebody given some knowledge of how they are likely to behave and the capabilites/limitations of them and their equipment - the airplane,and knowledge of weather patterns,aerodynamics etc.And with satellite photos being provided there must be a lot of hope that eventually Fossett's plane will be found.Perhaps the search process will reveal the limitations of satellite photos and/or how they are analysed.
    But I wholeheartedly agree with MGB PHYS that telling someone where you are going and actually going there is the best idea!

    This all said,here are some more ideas as to where Fossett's plane could be:
    If Fossett's plane didn't start a fire and it landed in vegetation (no fire site located so far) perhaps that can help us narrow down where he could have crashed - what plants don't burn easily?There is a lot of large fauna - elk,deer etc - in the Shoshone Mountains.Perhaps Fossett wanted to go there to see some.Large parts of Nevada are ugly as hell to look at:did Fossett go to a lush green area or to a nice blue lake? He was expected back at the Flying M Ranch near Yerington
    by 12.00 noon when the sun is high in the sky and roughly south.Would he have been flying south towards the ranch at this time with the sun in his face -I don't know if the sun bothers pilots a lot but it would bother me!
    I doubt he headed too far east towards high peaks such as Jefferson Peak because this would have required him to come back the same way he went (so he wouldn't run out of fuel) and would be boring as a pleasure flight which is what he was most likely taking because if he had intended to travel a long distance (say to Salt Lake area) then he would not have still been around the Wassuk Range-Walker Lake region after an hour and a half (you conserve fuel for emergencies on long flights).My best guess is that Fossett initially headed west from the flying M Ranch with the Sun behind him to the east,then travelled a little south (so he wasn't covering the same ground),then east as the sun moved south (so it wasn't directly in his eyes) -he was heading east through Powell Canyon when last seen - and to give himself a circular trip home to the Flying M Ranch ,perhaps he went by Mount Grant after going along the Lake Walker or the Shoshone mountains for a while, or perhaps he went to the western side of the Wassuck mountains from Powell Canyon.
    A journey close to the Wassuck mountains would mean he could get back to the Flying M Ranch without having the sun directly in his eyes - the journey from Mount Grant would have left the sun directly in his eyes.If Fossett wanted to go back to base quickly and he was going along Walker Lake then he may have climbed steeply over the Wassuk Range above Walker Lake and having plenty of fuel left would have been confident he had enough power for the climb to get him out of trouble if he needed it.I think it is likely that because his plane was working well after an hour and a half it didn't have any serious faults Fossett may have pushed his plane too hard and caused it to crash.Given his likely position and a the need for something to cause him to crash I find the idea that he climbed steeply over the Wassuck mountains above Walker Lake the most likely scenario.
    Icing of the wings or engine is unlikely because it's not a particularly cold time of year and he wouldn't have been high for long in this area.I think if he had made a misjudgement of the amount of fuel left he would have radioed to say he was going to be unable to reach a safe landing spot.It is most likely that whatever happened to Steve Fossett happened suddenly (he could have had a heart attack at 63 years old).The old-type 120 Mhz emergency beacons only work 50 per cent of the time so the fact that no signal has been detected from one is probably not significant.However there are lots of east-west aligned ravines on the Wassuck mountains and these could prevent a beacon signal from reaching a satellite.I have looked at aerial photos of the area and there are plenty of dark north facing ravines in the Wassuk Range and elsewhere and this may be why people have been unable to spot any wreckage by examining satellite photos.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2007
  13. Sep 21, 2007 #12
    These links show Walker Lake and the Wassuk Mountains which rise above its western shore in Nevada:

    Another possibility is that at about 10.30 am Steve Fossett travelled a little south of Walker Lake and then turned away from the sun heading towards the Bridgeport area.But to be back at the Flying M Ranch near Yerington by 12 noon as expected he would have had to travel faster than he had so far been doing.This may have revealed a mechanical fault in his airplane.I think that it would be helpful to know what disadvantages his plane's design has over other planes (mechanical reliability and aerodynamics),if planes of the type he was flying http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8KCAB_Decathlon have been in the area before without experiencing difficulty particularly at the same time of year and the same time of day,why 6 other planes crashed in this part of Nevada over the years gone by,and what the dangers of flying faster are - for example less room for steering error in narrow canyons.
    However the route from Walker Lake area to Bridgeport does not have lots of canyons along its path.There has been an extensive search by air and land for Fossett for three weeks now and nothing has turned up.There don't even seem to be vultures circling his plane,no burnt trees or undergrowth from burning fuel after a crash.Fossett is most likely at the bottom of a lake or river,or his plane may have exploded (an engine fire perhaps) at high altitude which would explain why debris is hard to find on satellite images - it would be scattered over a large area.Other possible causes of an explosion would be a lightning strike - although the weather was good on the day in question - or static building up on the airframe and sparking through a near-empty fuel tank.
    If the tank was nearly empty then Fossett could have been close to the Flying M Ranch but would have had to have been far enough away so the
    noise of an explosion couldn't be heard by the people there.
    If people in towns in the search area did not hear or see Fossett's plane this is helpful information because it means he wasn't nearby and could help narrow down possible flight paths.Also it would be helpful if the authorities in Nevada put out public announcements asking hikers and campers and motorists who were around that day if they saw or heard his plane and where they were when they noticed it and at what time.
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2007
  14. Sep 23, 2007 #13
    If Steve Fossett's plane
    exploded because of an engine fire or spark in a near-empty fuel tank then it's probable his plane was doing a lot of work climbing and so expending fuel or overheating the engine.
    Fossett was a pilot who participated in soaring competitions and he may also have been checking out locations for thermals and other air sources to keep a glider aloft over long distances.A typical distance in these soaring competitions is 250 miles (400km) over a triangular path.
    If he was checking out sources of lift near high mountain ridges he was taking risks because there can be severe turbulence close to ridges.


    But did he think his stunt plane which was designed to fly well upside down could get him out of difficulty - perhaps its design put him in greater peril under certain conditions.The last known time his whereabouts was known was about 10.30 am a little to the southwest of Hawthorne town which is itself just south of Walker Lake.It is interesting to note that this is the time of day that rising currents of warm air - thermals - become strong enough for gliding and the time when a lot of turbulent air starts to appear.At this time of day Fossett could have been thinking about soaring in a glider.

    His plane had enough fuel on board to take him another 250-300 miles
    and if he had travelled up the Shoshone valley from Walker Lake area he would have been able to reach the East Humboldt mountains on their east side and there are no significant settlements or towns in these regions so nobody would have noticed him passing by.Also the sun coming from the south at this time of day would have made the landscape on this northerly journey pleasant to look at.
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2007
  15. Sep 24, 2007 #14
    It's unlikely Fossett was heading north west,from his last known position south of Walker Lake,towards the sierra nevada and a high mountain like sonora peak in order to check out a route for soaring competitions because if he was flying high he could have radioed Reno or somewhere else to let them know he was having difficulties with his airplane.And someone would have spotted him flying over this relatively populated route.Also as thermals get strong around 10.30 am Fossett could have departed the Flying M Ranch a lot later than 9 am - his actual time of departure.
    Fossett would have been out of radio contact low down in the Shoshone Valley and this is also where trees would make it difficult to see a plane that has landed side on - with a wing tip touching the ground - difficult to see from a passing aircraft and from satellite images which have limited resolution. 42 % ofthe land in this area is Forestry Commision land and so a crash in this area is reasonably likely given the difficulties people have had in locating the plane.When aircraft search a valley they tend to fly along its length and this also might be a clue as to why the plane has been difficult to spot - it could be lying with its wings and fuselage parallel to the valley walls.
    Because searches are not done in the early morning or late evening when the sun is more to the east and west and lower in the sky,another possibility is that the plane is lying balanced on a wing tip with its fuselage on a north-south axis - this would make the large surface area of the wings more difficult for searchers to see later in the day because there would be no strong refelctions off the wing surfaces.Would a plane already flying in a south-north direction be likely to crash land with this orientation?
    The plane was blue and white - from a distance the blue would merge with yellow undergrowth and look green to the human eye.So it could be worth checking for green spots in large areas of yellow trees and other vegetation.Blue would be hard to make out against a green background.
    So green trees at the bottom of the Shoshone valley would be one of the more likely places to look for Steve Fossett.As would any heavily vegetated valley close to,and running on a north-south axis,parallel to Shoshone valley - they would all be well illuminated by the sun at the time of day Fossett could have been in their vicinity and would have made for pleasant viewing from the air for a pilot heading north.
    If he had an engine fire,he may have switched his engine off and tried to glide and land - something he was experienced at doing in gliders .
    So he could have tried to land beside a river (if there is one in the Shoshone valley) or even along a firebreak in a forest. An east-west orientated firebreak in a densely packed forest of tall trees would cut out the emergency beacon signal.I would think an engine fire was most likely to happen after he had done some climbing and put the engine under high mechanical stress.Fossett being a very experienced pilot would most likely have had a plan for what to do in certain emergency situations and crash landing somewhere in the open where his plane could easily be seen would make sense.Searchers have been looking in Topaz Lake but given that the sun was in the east when Fossett set out on his journey he would have headed west where the landscape was nicely illuminated and would probably have passed Topaz Lake,which is close to the Flying M Ranch,within half an hour of starting his flight.His last known position just south of Walker Lake and heading east towards Powell Canyon was recorded at 10.30 am - an hour and a half into his flight.If he turned north away from the sun when he was close to Powell Canyon and didn't continue east, this would make sense and perhaps his engine overheated or he stalled the plane climbing along the west side of the wassuk range.Nobody in Hawthorne,near Powell Canyon,reported seeing Fossett,so if he continued east he must have travelled south a few miles too.Perhaps then he turned north towards Shoshone Valley to get a distant view of the Black Rock Desert where he was expected sometime to make an attempt on the land speed record.
    Whether or not Fossett could be at the bottom of the 18 mile long Walker Lake depends on the likelihood of witnesses such as campers being around on its western shore on a monday in september (there are several campsites) - and on the presence/absence of fishermen on boats that day.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2007
  16. Sep 24, 2007 #15


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    I was in Elko Nevada a month ago talking to the sherif's dept mountain rescue people about another project - very cute bloodhounds!
    Living in Canada I was surprised that Elko need any rescue people, it was August, beautiful clear sky, flat landcape, 20mile visibilty - how can you get lost?

    They pointed out that the town is at 6000ft, the mountains around are 10,000ft and once you get off the main highway houses are 10-20miles apart. They regulalry have hikers who set off in perfect weather and die in a sudden thunderstorm or blizard or who get lost and walk off the path into the mountains and are never found.

    It is easy to forget how empty large stretches of the USA are.
  17. Sep 24, 2007 #16
    MGB PHYS said:
    "It is easy to forget how empty large stretches of the USA are"

    I agree.I live in the UK and we have one of the highest populations per square mile in the world.I live in a country but the US and Canada are continents in comparison.If you put another Canada just to the east of the real one, it would reach across the Atlantic ocean past my house and beyond Moscow!
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2007
  18. Sep 24, 2007 #17


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    True - I'm from Yorkshire, even on the moors you are rarely more than a few miles from a farmhouse and it's difficult to find somewhere where there isn't a track or fence line in view.
    Here in BC I went for a walk in the local mountains and took a new route, within a few minutes there is nothing but trees basically all the way to the artic circle. And this is within sight of a city of 2Million people.

    The rescue people in Nv were blaming SUV commercials, as Turbo said, it's very easy to drive for 30mins along a dirt track that will take you a day to walk back out of. Then to make it worse, the people get out for a walk along some ravine in tshirts and shorts and never come back.
  19. Oct 1, 2008 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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  20. Oct 1, 2008 #19
    I grew up in Battle Mountain and had to drive 72 miles to Elko every time I wanted to see a movie.
  21. Oct 1, 2008 #20


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    There are areas only about 50 miles west of where I live that have no zip code. It's in dense forest between two mountain (hills) ridges. There are no roads for miles, and there are lots of wilderness areas out west like that.

    Some day, I like to walk those areas out west. I really liked the area north of Mt. Rainier.
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