Technology may have failed Steve Fossett
MINDEN (AP) — Steve Fossett and technology were longtime companions, working together in record flights around the world in advanced airplanes and balloons.
But the globe-circling adventurer’s comrade appears to have turned fickle during and after a three-hour Labor Day jaunt.
His plane, borrowed from hotel magnate Barron Hilton, with whom he was staying in Smith Valley, carried an emergency locator transponder, or ELT, and the noted aviator often wore a special wristwatch that allowed him to signal his location in an emergency. But rescuers have heard nothing from either.
“Technology is a two-edged sword,” Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan said. “I’ve heard a lot of people mentioning the fancy Breitling watch that he is probably wearing. That’s great. His ELT is probably working just fine. But when you’ve got terrain like we have here, line-of-sight issues, bouncing off of canyon walls and not getting out, then you seriously diminish the ability of technology to do what it was designed to do.” Fossett’s wife, Peggy, said she did not believe her husband was wearing the watch.
In addition, Ryan said the on-board emergency locator transmitter, or ELT, could have been disabled in a crash or if the plane ended up submerged. Or its battery might have been too low.
“It’s not foolproof,” she said.
Nor, it seems, is the latest gadgetry for detecting heat or objects from the air.
In addition to scores of eyes in Civil Air Patrol planes that combed a vast swath of western Nevada for two weeks, listening in vain for the transmitter’s ping, other aircraft used old-fashioned infrared and a sophisticated system new to search and rescue.
On Monday, two weeks after Fossett was last seen, the Nevada Wing of the Civil Air Patrol sent home all but two of its planes, which remain at the airport in Minden. On Wednesday, the Nevada National Guard’s helicopters returned to their bases. The choppers and the two Civil Air Patrol planes remain on standby to respond to any new leads.
Searchers had held out high hopes for the technological newcomer ARCHER, which can “see” objects that don’t belong in places like Nevada’s other-world landscape – such as a piece of airplane.
“This is the kind of terrain that Archer was born and raised in and they want to put it through its paces and see just what it can do. These are optimal circumstances to test that system,” Ryan said during the search.
It was developed in the 1990s for scientific observation and military applications and refined for search and rescue by the military and Civil Air Patrol Col. Drew Alexa, Ryan said.
While the human eye typically detects three light bands, ARCHER — an acronym for Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance — can analyze 50. Mounted on the belly of a Civil Air Patrol plane, it transmits images to a monitor for instant analysis and captures the images for later use on the ground.
More traditional is infrared scanning, used on Nevada National Guard planes and helicopters to seek out a human being, even in the summertime furnace that is the Nevada desert.
“You look for different things in the daytime than in the nighttime. In the daytime you’re looking for cooler whereas in the nighttime you’re looking for hotter,” according to Col. Craig Wroblewski, director of operations for the Nevada Army and Air National Guard.
“In the daytime when the rocks are all sitting at 150 degrees, a human is going to show up cooler where at night the rocks cool down to 30-40 degrees, they’re going to show a much darker signature than a human would.”
The Forward Looking Infrared, or FLIR on the Guard’s C-130 airplane and its two UH-58 helicopters also has acute daytime eyesight.
“I’ve been in the helicopters down there in Las Vegas with their Forward Looking Infrared system and flying down the Strip. I’ve been able to zero in on somebody’s license plate,” said Bill Burks, assistant adjutant general for the Nevada Air National Guard.
While the C-130 and the UH-58s initially flew daytime and nighttime sorties in the search for Fossett, they eventually were restricted to the daylight hours because of concerns about the number of planes flying in the area.
“Normally when we do a search and rescue with the helicopter, we’re looking at a smaller area like in the Sierra or in Lyon County or some of our surrounding cow counties so we know right where our helicopters are searching,” Wroblewski said.
“We have a hard time at night when all the other aircraft are flying to make sure our pilots are safe. … We think it’s more safe to conduct the search during the daytime.”
In addition to the trained members of the Civil Air Patrol and the military, technology from Google and Amazon.com gave couch potatoes a chance to join the search.
Using a technique similar to the one that lets people find an aerial view of their house, amateur volunteers pored over high-resolution images of the rugged Nevada landscape where Fossett was thought to be missing in an area twice the size of New Jersey.
The satellite images were taken within days of Fossett’s disappearance, according to the Nevada National Guard, which used analysts to decipher possible sightings e-mailed by the public.
The images produced a lot of tips but no sign of the blue and white fabric-covered plane.
“Thousands of people have been sending in information,” Nevada Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Steven Snyder said. “When the Europeans get off work we get a bunch of e-mails. When the East Coasters get off work we get a bunch of e-mails.”
The Civil Air Patrol’s Maj. Ryan said she doubted the technology available through Google or Amazon.com could match that of the government’s satellite imagery.
And she said the discoveries of six planes that have been missing in Nevada for decades gives her hope that technological advances over the decades will help find Fossett’s plane.
Still, Undersheriff Joe Sanford of Lyon County, where the airstrip Fossett used is located, is baffled that the adventurer’s plane remains missing.
“We’ve got 2007 technology. … that can count beer cans in the back of pickup. But we haven’t found an airplane. That’s what’s frustrating,” Sanford said.
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