The tale of the extensive search for millionaire aviator Steve Fossett and the Mammoth resident who found the wreckage over a year later is well known in the Eastern Sierra. A year and a half after the crash, questions on the cause of the accident and the short term survival of Fossett remain unanswered.
Investigators have not yet issued a final determination on what caused the crash, but a new report from the National Transportation Safety Board describes weird wind conditions on September 3, 2007, the day of the accident.
The NTSB lists three different pilots who flew in the area that day. One pilot did not encounter any strong winds and described the day as a wonderful day to go flying. Another pilot flying over the Sierra said he hit random clear air turbulence, despite calm wind recorded on the ground. This pilot, who flies over the Sierra 50 times a year, remembered the unusually smooth air, with the random turbulence as a weird day. A glider pilot out of Bishop described unusually windy conditions on the ground but smooth sailing above 10,000 feet.
With hindsight to filter the reports from the time of the search, the NTSB describes a backpacker in the Bridgeport area who saw Fossetts plane flying before the crash. The camper said the plane appeared to be standing still, due to the winds. This person did report the sighting to the authorities after he saw the plane on the news during the search.
The NTSB also reports that after the wreckage was found, investigators that reviewed radar tacks found a track on what appeared to be Fossetts plane. The track started near the Flying M ranch where Fossett took off and ended about a mile short of the wreckage site. The track had been dismissed early in the search effort because of a witness at the Flying M Ranch that thought the he had seen the plane take off an hour later then it actually had.
The wreck site was reported to the Madera County Sheriffs Department on October 1, 2008, after a Mammoth local found money and ID cards that belonged to Fossett. It was almost a month later before searchers found Fossetts remains, three quarters of a mile from the plane. This led to speculation that Fossett had survived the crash and crawled that distance.
The new NTSB report does not mention the distance or any of the possible grisly details. The report only states that Fossett died of multiple traumatic injuries. Those who believe Fossett survived the crash note a five point seatbelt harness that was unbuckled. The NTSB report confirms this fact as well as the fact that the conventional lap belt for the front seat was also unbuckled. The report does not state how or why these belts were undone.
This report was a statement of facts. The final report as to the cause of the crash has not yet been released.