Central Valley

Fossett mystery solved, but intrigue continues

FRESNO -- When a Mammoth Lakes hiker last week found some belongings of missing aviator Steve Fossett, he returned to the area the next day with a TV cameraman and a local bear guru.

Wildlife expert Steve Searles saw something very telling: Bear tracks, and lots of them.

Perhaps it's not surprising that authorities -- notified a day later -- turned up pieces of Fossett's plane but no body. So, although an off-trail hiker has solved the yearlong mystery of the multimillionaire's lost flight, the discovery has only spawned new intrigue, questions and public curiosity.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the accident. Officials in Madera County, where the wreckage was located, will work with an anthropologist to determine whether four small bone fragments found at the crash site are human.

Erica Stuart, spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, said the oval-shaped pieces measure about 1 inch by 2½ inches. Whether or not the bones are human, it begs the larger question of what happened to Fossett's body.

Among the first to explore the rugged area was a crew with the Discovery Channel -- which happened to be in town to film bear expert Searles. They were led to the site by hiker Preston Morrow, who stumbled across weathered $100 and $5 bills and identification cards bearing Fossett's name on Sept. 29.

The idea of the return trip was to document the discovery and establish coordinates with a global positioning system device. Video of the trek already is on the Web site of the Discovery Channel.

Searles was surprised to see so much evidence of bears at 10,000 feet. Black bears usually find better plants to eat at lower elevations, he said. But bears, common around Mammoth Lakes, also eat meat. "Bears have powerful noses that help them find things at great distances," he said.

Mountain lions, coyotes and vultures also roam through the area, which is in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Fossett's single-engine plane crashed and burned near the Sierra crest at the northeastern edge of Madera County, about seven miles west of Mammoth Lakes. After the crash site's discovery, officials from more than a dozen law enforcement and other agencies scoured a debris field about half a square-mile.

Authorities located wreckage not far from the popular Devils Postpile National Monument and well-traveled John Muir Trail. Fossett hiked the trail as a teenager in 1962.

Fossett disappeared on Sept. 3, 2007 -- Labor Day. Mammoth Lakes, a resort town, had hundreds of visitors over that three-day holiday weekend.

The crash site or smoke from it also is within eyesight of the scenic gondola ride to the top of Mammoth Mountain -- a popular summertime trip for mountain bikers.

"I think everyone is just amazed that they didn't see or hear anything," said Stuart Brown, community relations manager for the Town of Mammoth Lakes.

Madera County officials say they've had few calls to the area over the years. Most involved missing or injured hikers.

"This is not fit for man," Stuart said of the ankle-wrenching terrain. "It may be for some beast, but not man." G. Pat Macha, author and avid searcher of plane wrecks, said curious people may want to explore the crash site. But the area is tough to reach and there probably isn't much debris left behind by investigators.

It's also deep in the wilderness. Macha said he was chased by a black bear near Mammoth Pass, an elevation of 8,500 feet, while photographing an old plane wreck in 1980. Morrow's discovery ignited a media frenzy in Mammoth Lakes.

The satellite trucks are gone, but the buzz remains in this community of 7,400. Locals say the Fossett find was more sensational than the potential volcanic eruption of Mammoth Mountain 25 years ago.

"The rumor this week is that Preston is going to get a $3 million reward," said Tom Cage, owner of Kittredge Sports, where Morrow works. "People are asking if he's going to quit his job. There's no reward."

Fossett, 63, took off last year in a borrowed Citabria Super Decathlon from a ranch near Yerington, Nev., owned by hotel magnate William Barron Hilton.

Fossett didn't file a flight plan. He was an experienced pilot and risk-taker who, in 2002, became the first person to circle the world on a solo balloon flight.

For weeks, air and ground searches for Fossett focused unsuccessfully on 20,000 square miles in Nevada and around the Sierra.

The Civil Air Patrol conducted near-daily flights over the Mammoth Lakes area because a plane had been tracked into the area by radar.

According to an NTSB report, Fossett told an employee at the Hilton ranch that he was heading south toward Highway 395. The highway runs just east of Mammoth Lakes and north-south through the Owens Valley.

Since the discovery of Fossett's plane, some speculate he ran into storm clouds that caused the plane to crash at up to 200 mph into a granite slope.

Yet meteorologist Steve Johnson, who analyzed weather for that area, said conditions were clear in the morning and only a little cloudy in the afternoon. He said weather was not a factor.

"The morning was beautiful," he said. "There was no thunderstorm in the afternoon. The only rain that day was in the Kern River drainage."

Some pilots say Fossett may have been joyriding over the Sierra. Redding pilot William Hill, a member of the Federal Aviation Administration safety team, has flown the area around Mammoth Lakes.

"It's a great place to go flying if you have a lot of experience, like Steve Fossett," he said. "Maybe he was flying low, chasing a coyote."