Mountains of the lost: the search for missing airmen

Hopes of finding Steve Fossett, the adventurer, are beginning to fade. Meanwhile, the search for him has turned up grim evidence of other airmen who have vanished in western America's version of the Bermuda Triangle. Leonard Doyle reports
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The Independent US

In 1927, executives at MGM Studios staged a stunt flight across America for Leo, the famous lion whose roar still appears in the opening credits of the company's films. They adapted a single-engined Brougham aeroplane similar to the Spirit of St Louis, which had just flown Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean, but installed extra fuel tanks and a cage for Leo. There were even tanks for milk and water.

The pilot, Martin Jensen, took off from San Diego in California soon after 10am on 16 September. Five hours later, he was lost in Arizona's Hellsgate Wilderness and trapped inside a box canyon – a ravine with steep rocky sides and no exit. This is every pilot's nightmare and is one of the theories being explored by the rescue teams searching for the adventurer Steve Fossett, who went missing 12 days ago.

Eighty years may separate the two disappearances, but there are some important similarities. Most importantly, the terrain for hundreds of miles around is extremely dangerous for single-engined planes. Most cannot clear the high peaks of the Sierras and instead pick their way through the mountain passes. Mr Fossett's borrowed plane was a high-performance single-engined Bellanca Decathlon designed for stunt flying. As with many single-engined planes since the dawn of aviation, its fuselage and wings are formed of wood and stretched fabric.

Back in 1927, Jensen – with Leo the lion aboard – found himself in a box canyon without room to turn or enough power to fly over the 6,300ft-high peak ahead. He crash-landed his plane, and the wings and landing gear were ripped off. Somehow, he and Leo survived without a scrape. After giving the lion some milk, water, and some of his lunch, Jensen set off on foot for help. Four days later, nearly dead from exhaustion, he was rescued by cowboys. When Jensen called MGM to report what had happened, their first question was: "How's the lion?"

It seems to many unlikely that, even if Mr Fossett survived a crash, the 63-year-old could then have lived for nearly two weeks in the wilderness. Those who know the adventurer say this is not the case.

Ron Kaplan, of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, said his friend had a long track record of careful planning and of surviving scrapes with death. "He may be roasting rattlesnakes and drinking liquid out of a cactus for all we know," he added. "He, above all people, knows how to survive."

This week, the search for Mr Fossett's plane widened to include the rugged eastern Sierra Nevada, including the sun-scorched Black Rock Desert where the Burning Man festival has just ended. It is also taking in the inky blue depths of Walker Lake, which separates Nevada and California.

The small force of about 40 aircraft now scouring an area spanning 17,000 square miles has come up with some surprises. Searchers have stumbled upon the wreckage of at least eight light plane crashes, going back decades, which were never properly logged or investigated at the time.

Each site holds clues to the fates of other fliers who went missing in what some are calling the Bermuda triangle of the western United States.

For William Ogle, 47, a professor of biomedical engineering in Florida, the search for Mr Fossett stirs up troubled memories. Back in August 1964, when he was four, his father, Charles "Chuggie" Ogle, took off from Oakland, California, and never came back.

Only 20 years later did he discover that the businessman had been heading to Reno, not far from where the search for Mr Fossett is concentrated.

When Mr Ogle learnt last week of the other plane wrecks being discovered, he thought the search to find out what happened to his father might be over. He told the Nevada wing of the Civil Air Patrol that one of the wrecks might be that of Charles Ogle's single-engined Cessna 210. At the moment, however, little is known about the eight planes spotted so far, because searchers have only flown over long enough to decide whether or not its Mr Fossett's Bellanca.

Mr Ogle's hope is that he will be able to achieve closure on a very difficult time of his life. His father, who was taught to fly during the Korean War, was 41 when he vanished.

When he returned from the war he became a property developer with a taste for life's finer things. He was in the process of divorcing his wife and concluding an $12m property deal when he dropped off the map.

While Mr Fossett is the holder of more than 110 land, sea and air world records, Charles Ogle was strictly a weekend pilot. On the day he left, he tried to persuade his pregnant girlfriend to come with him to Reno. She refused, and he got in the plane alone and left without a flight plan or even a wave.

Mr Fossett also took off without a flight plan, from the Flying M ranch 90 miles south-east of Reno, owned by his friend, the hotel billionaire Barron Hilton. He was on a brief scouting mission for a site on which to attempt a new land speed record backed by Sir Richard Branson.

In 1964, it took two days before people started getting worried about Charles Ogle. The search-and-rescue effort lasted a mere 60 hours, compared with the hundreds of hours already spent hunting for Mr Fossett – not to mention the thousands of Internet users around the world using Google Earth to scan magnified images of the dense terrain.

"Yes, there are special resources being devoted to this because of who he is," admitted Major Cynthia Ryan, of the Civil Air Patrol. "Let's not be coy about that. But the basics of what you see here today is what we devote to every search."

She has assured William Ogle that search crews will return to the new-found wrecks to examine them for clues. But he said: "I'm in limbo and I'm sitting here on the edge of hope. When your dad disappears like this, you always have this feeling, maybe he didn't care about us so he just left. And for me, at least, it will feel like, 'He didn't just take off – an accident happened. And he would have been there.'"

Charles Ogle's widow and two young children were left destitute by his disappearance. The suburban comfort of 1960s California vanished overnight as William's mother went on welfare to survive.

"This has hung over me my whole life," William Ogle recalled. "I don't remember the emotional impact because I was too young, but my teachers would complain to my mother because I would look out the windows all the time looking for his plane. I just thought he didn't come down yet."

It may be a while before a crew gets into the canyon where they spotted a plane from the 1960s. "It in a very treacherous area," Major Ryan said. "And they will have to comb through the wreckage, see if they can find some sort of a serial number even on just to the engine part. Then they give that to the manufacturers and find out who the owner was."

The priority now is the search for Steve Fossett. Searchers this week received a tip from a woman who had been staying in a remote cabin north of Yosemite National Park.

"She was in her cabin, and heard a plane fly over ... and then she heard a loud explosion or a loud crash noise and saw a little bit of smoke," Major Ed Locke of the Nevada National Guard said.

It will take four days at least to search the rugged area. In Nevada, searchers are also combing an area where two witnesses had reported seeing a plane fly into a canyon and not come out. The search goes on.

For many years Charles Ogle's family didn't even know where he was headed the day he vanished. An account in the Oakland Tribune newspaper 53 years ago referred to him as friendless "loner" and "a land investor with a Midas touch". He was on the brink of a deal to build four nursing homes and a high-rise apartment block in the San Francisco Bay Area that would have made him enormously wealthy for the time.

When he failed to return, his father, a farmer, made his first ever trip to California and hired private investigators to undertake a fruitless search. Then, in 1985, William Ogle tracked down his father's mistress, who was seen near the plane just before he took off. That is how he learnt he was going to Reno.

There has never been a funeral or memorial for Charles Ogle, and the suspicion that he just skipped town with $75,000 has always hung over the family.

William Ogle has been busy joining in the online search for Steve Fossett in the hope that it will turn up evidence of his dad. His own analysis of US military records of crashes reveals that many occurred in the high mountains around Reno.

"It is really treacherous," he said. "There are areas where small plane must go through canyons and, if the wind picks up, it can quickly lose altitude of 1,000 feet."

He has also been in the mountains looking for his father's plane and been overawed by the sheer scale of the landscape. "You are like an ant in a vast tableau," he said. "Finding anything on foot is virtually impossible."

Even with the hi-tech sensors and heat-seeking devices being used to hunt for Steve Fossett, the best method of looking for a plane remains a visual search from a small aircraft.

And if Charles Ogle's plane is never found, the family has drawn some comfort from the fact that despite all Fossett's expertise and experience he also appears to have crashed.

"The Fossett thing sort of brings it home – the difficulty of finding someone when they go down on a small plane," Mr Ogle said. "If this could happen to him, it sort of makes me feel better about what happened to my father. It happened to a super pilot, not just a weekend pilot like my dad."

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