Last Wednesday morning, October 1st, California hiker Preston Morrow contacted the Mono County Sheriff’s Department and showed officers a pilot’s license, two other ID cards, and some weather-bleached currency that he’d found scattered on the ground in the Red’s Meadow area of Inyo National Forest. The site he described to authorities is in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Mammoth Lakes, California, and Devils Postpile National Monument.
On Monday, September 29, Morrow was hiking with his dog in high and rugged terrain. After leaving Devils Postpile on the Minaret Lake Trail, Morrow decided to go far off-trail and have a look around. That’s when he found documents and cash (ten hundreds and a five) he thought might have been scattered by a bear tearing into a backpack. There was no plane wreckage to be seen.
Later realizing the significance of his find, Morrow returned to the spot the next day with his wife, some friends, and a videographer. The next morning, Morrow reported his find – and the GPS coordinates of the site -- to local law enforcement officials.
The license and other items belonged to billionaire businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett, who took off from a private airstrip in Nevada in September 2007 and disappeared. Until now, no trace of Fossett or his Bellanca Super Decathalon airplane had been found.
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Morrow’s discovery sparked a renewed search for Fossett, who had planned to take only a short solo flight in the Decathalon and had not filed a flight plan. The huge search conducted after his disappearance turned up no trace of his aircraft and was eventually suspended. People have been wondering ever since what happened to the flamboyant 63-year old securities billionaire, who set 116 records in airplanes, balloons, gliders and sailboats.
Yosemite National Park was asked to provide mutual aid assistance in the search for the crash site the hiker described. Ranger Matt Stark located the crash site from the park’s helicopter H-551 at about 6 p.m.
Civil Air Patrol searchers had flown over the crash site at least 19 times, but always in fixed wing aircraft flying search patterns a thousand feet or more above the ground. Given the ruggedness of the terrain, it’s small wonder that the CAP searchers came up empty. The searchers who finally located the plane wreck had GPS coordinates for the place where the documents were found (thanks to Morrow) and were scanning the landscape from a helicopter flying only about 200 feet above the ground. The crash site was about a quarter-mile from the place where Morrow found the documents.
Fossett’s plane was so badly mangled from its high-impact crash that it is presumed to have slammed head-on into the mountain at full speed. A crash that violent would almost certainly be lethal to the pilot. No body was found, but at least one possibly human bone fragment was recovered.
The assistance of Yosemite park staff has proven invaluable in the search and investigation. The landing zone providing access to the accident site is in alpine terrain at about 9,700 feet, limiting the type of helicopter that could safely operate there. Yosemite’s contract helicopter H-551, which operates out of Yosemite’s helicopter base at Crane Flat, is a very capable aircraft for this sort of work. The park’s SAR personnel are also well qualified and very experienced.
On October 2nd and 3rd, the National Park Service again supplied H-551 and personnel for the recovery operation. Park staff helped the Madera County Sheriff’s Department with the recovery of human remains and assisted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator.
Park staff also helped Inyo National Forest personnel with the removal and cleanup of the accident site, which is in a designated wilderness. There was a sense of urgency, as a winter storm was brewing at the time. Fortunately, NTSB personnel were able to remove the wreckage of Fossett's plane before the storm started.
The storm has since dumped at least two feet of snow on the crash site and surrounding area, rendering further searching quite hazardous. Since Fossett is presumed dead, the search will almost certainly be suspended until spring. Many months are likely to elapse before the NTSB releases its accident investigation report.
Meanwhile, the hiker who found the crash site is ready to get out of the public spotlight and get some rest. Peggy Fossett, Steve Fossett’s wife, thanked outdoorsman and sporting goods salesman Preston Morrow for helping to bring closure to this tragic episode. Morrow, who was swamped with more than 30 media interviews in the wake of his discovery, and even received a personal call from Fossett’s billionaire friend Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines), has said that he’s happy that he found what he did, and doesn’t expect a reward. He said he does need a vacation and won’t disclose the destination.
Bob Janiskee provided valuable assistance with this article.