Investigators: Did weather cause Fossett's crash?

By: AP
By: AP
Safety officials investigating the death of millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett are trying to determine if weather played a role the day his plane crashed into a mountain in eastern California more than a year ago.

Remains from the plane at the crash site.

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. (AP) -- Safety officials investigating the death of millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett are trying to determine if weather played a role the day his plane crashed into a mountain in eastern California more than a year ago.

It was a clear morning when Fossett took off from a ranch in Nevada owned by his friend Barron Hilton, but large storm clouds were reported later that day over the peaks around Mammoth Lakes, where searchers found his mangled airplane this week.

"Now that we know where to look, we are going to try to determine if weather was a factor," Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Friday.

Fossett mysteriously disappeared on Sept. 3, 2007, during what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight before lunch with Hilton. Despite several searches by air and on the ground over the past year, efforts to find his single-engine plane had been unsuccessful. The break came this week when a hiker found Fossett's identification cards in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada wilderness about 65 miles southwest of Hilton's ranch.

"It was a hard-impact crash, and he would've died instantly," said Jeff Page, emergency management coordinator for Lyon County, Nev., who assisted in the search.

Most of the fuselage disintegrated on impact, and the engine was found several hundred feet away at an elevation of 9,700 feet, authorities said. Debris littered an area longer than a football field and nearly as wide as the steep Sierra Nevada mountainside.

Investigators worked furiously Friday to recover additional evidence from the site and fly it to a hangar for examination before a storm was due to move in and dump an expected 2 feet of snow, said Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff's Office, which has search crews at the site.

On Thursday, local and federal officials said remains were found and DNA tests would be performed. While NTSB said the remains were human, Madera County officials wouldn't speculate before testing. Sheriff John Anderson described the finding by one of his lieutenants as an oblong piece of bone measuring 2 by 1 1/2 inches.

Stuart said the bone and any other remains recovery teams may find Friday would be sent to a California Department of Justice lab for examination.

The crash site had been flown over 19 times by the California Civil Air Patrol during the initial search last year. But it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane, given what was known about sightings of Fossett's plane, his travel plans and the amount of fuel he had.

Lt. Col. Ronald Butts, a pilot who coordinated the Civil Air Patrol search effort, said gusty conditions along the mountains' upper elevations hampered the early efforts to search by air, as did the small amount of debris that remained after the plane crashed.

"Everything we could have done was done," Butts said.

Bill Manning, airport and transportation director at Mammoth Yosemite Airport, said the high Sierra is a beautiful but dangerous area to fly, estimating that the region sees three to five small plane crashes every year.

"It's hugely rugged. ... It's a fabulous environment but unforgiving, for sure," he said. "Anytime you fly in the mountains, it's not like you're going to land on a highway. There just aren't many places you can put an airplane down and walk away."

Fossett made a fortune in the Chicago commodities market and 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.

"I hope now to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life," his widow, Peggy, said in a statement Thursday. "I prefer to think about Steve's life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments."

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Associated Press writer Terence Chea in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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