Published January 14, 2015
A camper who believes he saw Steve Fossett's plane moments before he slammed into a Sierra mountainside says headwinds were so strong that day that the plane appeared to be "standing still," according to a federal report released Thursday on the 2007 crash.
The report by the National Transportation Safety Board says the unidentified camper and his companions watched the plane struggle at an altitude of about 11,500 feet as strong winds blew out of the southwest.
"It looked like it was standing still due to the wind," the report said.
Fossett's widow, Peggy, characterized what was supposed to be a short flight on Sept. 3, 2007, along the rugged eastern Sierra as "a Sunday drive." The fate of the millionaire adventurer was a mystery until a hiker's discovery of some of Fossett's belongings, including two identification cards, in October 2008 ultimately led to the charred wreckage.
The report says Fossett died on impact of multiple traumatic injuries. Only tiny bone fragments remained by the time the wreckage was found.
The fact-finding report does not include a cause of the crash, but outlines facts discovered during the investigation, including reports of strong winds and previous problems with the plane.
It also says that radar tracked a plane as it flew south along the mountain range at 9:07 a.m. It ends abruptly at 9:27 a.m. near the crash site.
Among the discoveries amid the shattered wreckage was the emergency release handle for the 63-year-old pilot's door, with the locking pin still in place, the NTSB said.
Fossett left the western Nevada ranch owned by his friend Barron Hilton at about 8:30 a.m. in a Bellanca 8KCAB-180, called the "Super Decathalon," for what was supposed to be a quick morning flight followed by lunch. He had logged at least 40 hours in the plane, the report said.
Fossett told the Flying M Ranch's chief pilot that he intended to fly along Highway 395. He did not say he would attempt aerobatic maneuvers, as the plane is capable of, nor did he wear a parachute, which would have been required, the report said.
When Fossett did not return by 11:30 a.m., a massive search began.
Searchers speculated that the Sierra's notorious downdrafts, combined with a loss of power at high altitude, might have made it difficult for Fossett to clear the mountain.
A pilot who flew his passengers over Yosemite National Park around that time said the smooth ride interrupted by "random rough chop" made for "a weird day" in the air, according to the NTSB.
Fossett, who made a fortune in the Chicago commodities market, gained worldwide fame for setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon.