What's up with all the uncharted plane wrecks in the Sierra Nevada?

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Sept. 11 2007 4:12 PM

Tomb of the Unknown Aircraft

What's up with all the uncharted plane wrecks we're finding around the Sierra Nevada?

Millionaire Steve Fossett has been missing since last Monday, when he took off from a Nevada airstrip for a short flight. Rescue crews have yet to find the famous adventurer or his plane, but according to news reports, they've discovered at least six "uncharted wrecks" across a 17,000-square-mile swath of the Sierra Nevada—or nearly one a day since the search began. Why are there so many undocumented crash sites around the Sierra Nevada?

Rough terrain. When a plane goes missing, county law enforcement agencies deploy rescue teams to search for the pilot and his aircraft. Often the local wing of the Civil Air Patrol, the highway patrol, and even the National Guard pitch in to help. But manpower doesn't change the fact that the Sierra Nevada mountains are some of the tallest in the Northern Hemisphere with few low-altitude passes for rescue crews traveling by foot or helicopter. If a plane goes down in a wooded area, then ground teams might walk close by without realizing it. Plus, frequent wind gusts with sudden downdrafts make it difficult to search for long periods of time. A crash site, therefore, can go undetected for months or even years until a hiking party or another rescue team stumbles upon it.

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Judging from missing-aircraft reports that were never closed, Nevada's Civil Air Patrol estimates that there are nearly 200 uncharted crash sites hidden in the treacherous mountain range. That may sound like a lot, but some of the wrecks go back 50 years, before the advent of high-tech search gadgets like the ARCHER imaging system, which can identify targets as small as a motorcycle from 2,500 feet away. One of the crash sites that the Fossett team discovered might date to 1964, when most search crews relied on a woefully inefficient "fly over and look" method.

What's the protocol when a search crew finds a wreck? They call up the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which maintains a registry of known crashes that were never cleaned up because they're inaccessible or remote. Nevada, by the way, has 129 such sites. If the AFRCC already knows about the wreck, the search members move on. If not, the search crew provides the AFRCC with exact coordinates and a physical description. Then inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration conduct a forensic analysis to determine how the plane crashed and use the plane's serial number (if it's still visible) to identify the original owner.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration, Maj. Clifton Hicks of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, and Maj. Cynthia Ryan of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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