Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Steve Fossett Accident

The NTSB’s findings on the famed aviator’s fatal crash

On October 1, 2008, a hiker in the Sierra Nevada mountains found personal effects that included Fossett’s pilot certificate and a second ID card. A new search began, and the airplane’s wreckage was found a half mile from the spot where the personal items were found. Located about 300 feet below the crest of a ridge, the accident site was in a place with steep terrain, a few tall pine trees and numerous boulders and rock outcroppings surrounded by grassy areas.

The airplane was broken into numerous fragments. All of the fabric covering was burned off the fuselage, and fire damage had even spread to some of the pine trees. The propeller displayed evidence of operating under power at impact. Fossett’s body wasn’t recovered, but small bone fragments, which couldn’t immediately be identified as human, were found at the accident site. Pieces of a human skeleton were found at the location where the hiker had found Fossett’s identification. Searchers also found a pair of tennis shoes, clothing and credit cards. DNA testing determined that the skeletal fragments were Fossett’s. A report at the time indicated that animal and human hair were found on an article of clothing. The NTSB’s narrative doesn’t speculate as to how the skeletal fragments ended up a half mile from the wreckage. Postmortem examination of the fragments determined that the cause of death was multiple traumatic injuries.

Not mentioned in the NTSB’s narrative of the accident is a report voluntarily sent to NTSB Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker in October 2008 by a local meteorologist from Bishop, Calif., who did his own study of weather conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains area on the day of the accident. Harold Klieforth had worked on mountain wave studies in the 1950s, which were funded by the U.S. Air Force and conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles. He later became chief of the Air Force Experimental Meteorology branch, and has written extensively on weather phenomena in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Klieforth suggested that Fossett may have encountered downdrafts of up to 2,000 fpm, resulting in a violent crash into terrain. Klieforth says he observed lenticular clouds and a “cap cloud” obscuring the summit of Mammoth Mountain on the day of the accident. He says winds recorded at three mountaintop weather stations that day reached 70 mph.

An NTSB investigator talked with a pilot who has a home in Bishop and often flies across the Sierras. On the morning of the accident, this pilot flew a Cessna 206 from Rio Vista Airport to Mammoth Yosemite Airport. His flight departed at about 11:30 a.m., two hours after the estimated time of Fossett’s accident. The flight track took him about two miles north of the accident site, at an altitude of 13,500 feet MSL. This pilot reported that the winds aloft were from the south at 10 knots, there were no clouds and visibility was about 60 miles. He told the investigator that he didn’t encounter any “big turbulence,” he didn’t have to slow down because of turbulence, and that it was a “wonderful day to go flying.”

A pilot who flew a King Air from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Reno, Nev., and back was interviewed. Forty-five minutes after the estimated accident time, the pilot came within 20 miles of the accident site. The pilot reported that the ride was “unusually smooth when it was not turbulent.” He described it as “a weird day,” and reported that he flies into Mammoth Lakes about 50 times a year.

Also interviewed was a glider pilot who flew out of the airport at Bishop. The pilot said that it was unusually windy during the takeoff, and once he got above 10,000 feet MSL, the wind dropped off and the air was smooth.

A witness who had been camping with friends 30 miles north of the accident site, at an elevation of 9,400 feet MSL, reported seeing what he believes was Fossett’s airplane. It was a half mile north of the campsite at 11,500 feet MSL. He said the airplane was headed into the wind and appeared to be standing still. He reported that it had been a windy night at the campsite and it remained windy in the morning. When he and his friends returned to civilization and saw pictures of the accident airplane on television, he notified local authorities about their sighting.

After the accident site was located, investigators took another look at radar data that had been used to aid in the original search. Once they knew where to look, they were able to identify a radar track, which began at 9:07 a.m. and was visible until 9:27 a.m. It showed a target following the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, traveling in a southwesterly direction. The target first appeared on radar about 35 miles south/southwest of the Flying M Ranch, and ran about 10 miles west of Highway 395. The target was lost from radar at a location one mile from the accident site. The target had a transponder code of 1200. The Mode C altitude indications were between 14,500 and 14,900 feet. The transponder dropped out, and the target became a primary return with no transponder or altitude enhancement. Investigators noted that the wreckage at the accident site was headed north. They concluded that this meant Fossett likely had made a 180-degree turn after the time that radar contact was lost.

Fossett, age 63, was no flying novice. He held an ATP certificate with a multi-engine rating and a commercial certificate for single-engine land airplanes, single-engine sea airplanes and helicopters. He also had type ratings in a number of business jets, was a glider and balloon pilot, and held a number of aviation records. On his last application for an FAA second-class medical certificate, he reported 6,731 total hours with 350 hours in the previous six months. It was estimated that he had 40 hours in the Super Decathlon.

Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other NTSB news. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.

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