Why Is It So Hard to Find Steve Fossett?

Steve Fossett cannot possibly have disappeared into thin air. But for now, it seems that way.

More than a week after he took off on a routine flight in western Nevada, there is still no sign of him or his single-engine plane. Pilots, coordinated by the Nevada wing of the Civil Air Patrol, have been scanning an area twice the size of New Jersey.

"Every day that we start out, we all feel that this is going to be the day we locate Mr. Fossett," said Chuck Allen of the Nevada Highway Patrol.

Some survival experts believe Fossett has already died.

"At this point, you'd be lucky to find him alive," Lee Bergthold, director of the Palmdale, Calif.-based Center for Wilderness Studies and a former Marine Corps survival instructor, told the Associated Press.

On a typical day this week, according to the Civil Air Patrol, there were 21 aircraft out searching from patrol wings in Nevada, California, Utah and Colorado. Another 13 private planes were used by volunteers, operating from the Flying M Ranch in Lyon County, Nev., from which Fossett was flying on Labor Day.

Internet users have also pitched in, volunteering to peer at newly released satellite images of the area.

The search has focused on a circular area stretching 50 miles in every direction from the Flying M, which is owned by hotel heir Barron Hilton. Officials say that's just a matter of logic: The majority of airplane accidents happen close to takeoff or attempted landing.

But if Fossett's plane went down there, it has not yet been spotted.

"We've got close to 100 percent covered, at least in some cursory fashion," said Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. "We have to eliminate a lot of territory."

Why is it so hard, with so many sets of eyes scouring the landscape, to find a well-known, skilled pilot in a brightly colored plane? Searchers say the sheer size of the American west explains a lot of it.

"We're in one of the least-populated states in the country," said Ryan. Fossett could easily have flown for two or three hours in any direction, at more than 100 miles an hour, and his trip could have been over desert, or salt flats, or the rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada range.

So far, searchers have found eight wrecked planes — but none were Fossett's, and some were decades old. The U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which keeps a registry of known wreck sites, has a list of 129 for Nevada, but members of the Fossett search say there are probably another 150 small planes that have disappeared there without ever being found.

Coordinators of the Fossett search say the false alarms have been good news to them. "We're discounting the areas where he can't be," said Allen.

But it's slow going. Fossett's plane could easily be hidden by trees in some remote valley. Even Hilton's ranch, his departure point, is 26 miles down a dirt road.

"Northern Nevada is a desert full of stuff — mining junk, old cars, bullet-riddled refrigerators, everything that you can possibly imagine," said Ryan. "And so, when you're looking, it's hard to determine from 1,000 feet what it is you're looking at.

"If we get something that really seems significant," she said, a Blackhawk helicopter can be rushed to the site. "They can tell within probably an hour whether it's anything to get excited about."

But the searchers admit they're tired, and the worst sign is that Fossett, a famously resourceful man, has done nothing to signal for help.

"It's going to take just one set of eyes to find him," said Allen. "That's all it's going to take."

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