Couch Potatoes Aid Search for Missing Aviator Steve Fossett Using Internet
MINDEN, Nev. – The search for missing aviator Steve Fossett has generated Internet tips and volunteer pilots, though whether the extra aid is helping or hurting the rescue effort is still an open question.
Driven by Google search technology that enables couch potatoes to view from their computers high-resolution photographs of the rugged Nevada landscape where Fossett went missing, thousands of amateur volunteers are trying to help the hundreds of official searchers.
"This is kind of a new thing for us," said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan, who said every Google-generated tip is reviewed and the best ones passed on to pilots. So far, there have been several false sightings of Fossett's airplane.
A private search effort also is being driven in part by hotel magnate Barron Hilton, who has opened the mile-long airstrip at his Flying M Ranch to search planes and helicopters. Fossett took off from the ranch's runway more than a week ago.
Click here to read more about the rugged terrain.
While the private effort has worked side by side with the government during the eight-day hunt, officials said they are becoming worried that the latest call for volunteers could bring in people who are unfamiliar with the vast and often dangerous landscape.
"It has not been condoned, nor is it necessarily helpful to the law enforcement community," Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford said Sunday. "We don't want searchers to have to go out to look for searchers."
On Monday, Sanford explained he was most concerned with the possibility that untrained searchers would begin conducting independent ground searches in the rugged, sparsely populated areas where Fossett is believed to be lost.
Sanford said a lack of oversight sometimes leads to the official search effort covering ground already searched by the private effort. He said the private effort was still welcome, but noted that it is "impossible to track."
On Fossett's Internet site, a link is offered to the satellite image analysis project, and search coordinator Mark Marshall has asked for help from pilots trained in search and rescue.
"You will need to make your own way to the ranch. Accommodation is now tight, so you will need a tent and sleeping bag — and a commitment to stay for some time if necessary," the site says.
Officials also expressed concern that participants in the National Championship Air Races and Air Show in nearby Reno starting Wednesday could hamper the search effort. They pleaded with race participants and other pilots attending the event to stay away from the search area.
The 63-year-old Fossett, a former commodities trader who was the first to circle the globe in a balloon, was last heard from Sept. 3. Authorities believe he was carrying only one bottle of water, but he is considered an expert pilot and survivalist.
"I am confident in his ability to survive this," Ryan said.
The search will continue indefinitely, she said, adding that the effort will stop when searchers have "exhausted every square inch, and we aren't even close to that."
Fossett's wife, Peggy, praised the joint effort, calling it "an incredible collaboration." In a statement, she said, "Our hopes are high and I am confident of a successful resolution to this search.
"I am indebted to the numerous friends who have come from around the world to serve as pilots, spotters and ground crew and who are giving genuine moral support during this difficult time."
Hilton has declined to comment to The Associated Press, and pilots and ground crew at the ranch also declined to talk to a reporter who visited.
Since Saturday, two government helicopters have been based at Hilton's ranch, authorities said. The airstrip is about 80 miles southeast of Reno.
Once used to entertain high-rolling gamblers from Hilton casinos in Las Vegas, the Flying M Ranch has become a coveted getaway for aviators and astronauts. To get there by road, one must take a 26-mile journey over a dirt road that offers a view of mile after mile of sagebrush, rocks and sand.