Fossett search chases two new tips near Nev-Calif line
Associated Press Writer
MINDEN, Nev. (AP) ” After finding a half-dozen old airplane wrecks over 10 days, crews searching for missing aviator Steve Fossett focused on new tips about planes actually flying in the area the day his disappeared.
A Blackhawk helicopter and several ground crews were dispatched late Wednesday afternoon to a spot in the Pinenut Mountains about 20 miles northeast of Minden where two witnesses reported seeing a plane like Fossett’s fly into a canyon but not fly out on Labor Day.
Search planes had flown the area several times, but the second sighting was reported to authorities for the first time Wednesday, so ground crews went in for a closer look, said Jeff Page, Lyon County’s emergency manager. They halted that search just before dark, but intended to return Thursday morning.
To the south, just across the California line, search planes flew over an area along U.S. Highway 395 northeast of Yosemite National Park after a woman reported to authorities Wednesday that she had camped there over Labor Day and remembered hearing a noise that sounded like an airplane, followed by a noise that sounded like an explosion, Page said.
A C-130 found nothing during a flyover Wednesday, but California law officers planned to interview the woman on Thursday.
With no end to the search in sight, more than a dozen aircraft scanned the terrain again Wednesday for any sign of Fossett, who took off Sept. 3 from a private airstrip about 80 miles southeast of Reno.
“We will continue until all credible leads are followed up. We don’t know when that will be,” Civil Air Patrol Maj. Ed Locke said.
As a byproduct, the small air force combing the wilderness has spotted a half-dozen uncharted crash sites that may bring some solace to the families of fliers who took off into the desert sky decades ago, never to be heard from again.
William Ogle hopes some of the newly discovered wreckage will be from the plane his father was flying when he vanished on a flight from Oakland, Calif., to Reno. Ogle was just 5 at the time.
“I knew he had taken off in a plane and never came back,” said Ogle, now a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida. “I can remember flying in his plane. He let me hold the controls, and I remember looking out the window.”
Like Fossett, Charles “Chazzie” Ogle did not file a flight plan for the business trip, so searchers didn’t know where to look in the vastness that was the rural West in 1964, Ogle said.
“They did what they could at the time, and they could have done more, but they had no idea he was heading toward Reno,” Ogle said. “I used to have a large map of California, and I would look at places and the routes he would fly.”
Leaders of the search operation for Fossett say they have not had time to investigate the new sites in detail because their top priority is finding the famous adventurer, not recovering old aircraft.
“When all is said and done, they’ll send ground crews in to thoroughly investigate what is left,” Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan said of the old crashes.
Eventually, some of the old crashes should be linked to long-missing aviators, Ryan said. Even small pieces of wreckage can contain a serial number that can be tracked back to the manufacturer and the owner of the plane.
Nevada’s forbidding backcountry is a graveyard for small airplanes and their pilots.
Fossett survived a nearly 30,000-foot plunge in a crippled balloon, a dangerous swim through the frigid English Channel and hours stranded in shark-infested seas. But 10 days after he took off on a routine flight and never returned, doubts were growing that he could still be alive.
The search covers 17,000 square miles ” an area twice the size of New Jersey ” stretching roughly from the Sierra Nevada ridge west of the Nevada-California line nearly 100 miles to the east.
Since Fossett’s plane disappeared, authorities have received nearly two dozen calls from people across the country saying they possibly had loved ones on one of the planes discovered this week.
But the system of tracking missing aircraft is a makeshift affair at best.
The Florida-based Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which is helping coordinate the Fossett search, maintains a registry of known sites of plane wrecks. It has 136 entries for Nevada, said Maj. Cliff Hicks, director of operations.
The nation’s aviation regulatory agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, investigate mostly only crash sites they can reach safely.
An NTSB database lists dozens of aircraft that have vanished across the country since 1982. Most were small private planes flying over deep water or rugged, remote country. Many of the pilots did not file flight plans.
Records are especially fuzzy on planes that disappeared many years ago, when both planes and search technology were more primitive. For example, there is no record in Hicks’ files of Chazzie Ogle’s ill-fated final flight.
Ogle hopes Fossett’s plane is found quickly. He said hearing bad news would be better than hearing nothing.
“I don’t want to see his family go through this,” Ogle said. “It’s better to know what happened. You have that uncertainty hanging over your life.”
Associated Press writers Ron Word in Jacksonville, Fla., Martin Griffith in Reno and Sandra Chereb in Minden contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov
Air Force Rescue Coordination Center: http://www.acc.af.mil/afrcc/
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