Two men stand over the wreckage of an airplane

How to find a missing airplane

Words: Megan Michelson
Photos: Luis Moreira

It seems impossible that in this day and age, whole airplanes can go missing. But it happens more than you think. Here’s how to track down a plane that disappears into the mountains.

“There have been hundreds of airplane wrecks in the Sierra Nevada alone—and at least 10 of those still haven’t been discovered,” says Simon Donato, an endurance athlete, PhD geologist, and the founder of Adventure Science, an organization that aims to solve and explore nature’s mysteries. Over his career, Donato has searched for half a dozen missing airplanes, including a 2015 search for the plane of famed aviator Steve Fossett and a 2014 search for the missing jet of Lieutenant David Steeves, a military pilot who crashed his plane deep in the Sierra Nevada back in 1957. Finding plane wreckage in a vast mountain range isn’t easy. But here’s how it’s done.

1. Zone In 

“Sometimes you have no clue as to where the plane is. So you try to gather as much information as possible: flight paths, last known coordinates, radar tracking. You have to do some sleuthing but there’s technology and databases that exist that can help. Once you have coordinates for where you think the plane is, plug that into Google Earth and look at the zone from the air—that gives you a sense of what you’re after.”

2. Catch a Lift

“Some of these crashes are in rugged, impossible-to-reach locations. So the next step is seeing how close you can get using a vehicle. We usually pick wreck sites that require some work to get to. That’s our skillset. But we’ll still catch a lift as far as we can. Once we get dropped off, we have a protocol for how we travel through the landscape. We have a logistics commander who stays at the vehicle. We’ll start in one group, then branch out as we get closer to the search area.”

“We train our brains to look for things that are different.”
Simon Donato
airplane wreck search

Wreckage found at the site of the Steve Fossett plane crash

© Luis Moreira

3. Space Out

“We have something called critical spacing, which is the distance between the searchers that would allow you both to see whatever sized object you’re looking for. For example, if you lost a baseball in a wheat field and you have 10 people searching you almost need to be holding hands. But if you’re looking for a dump truck, your spacing will be different. We adjust based on that. You also have to deal with steep terrain and thick vegetation and adapt to that.”

 

4. Stay Strong

“You’ve got to have good fitness to get in there. A lot of days, we’re putting in well over 20 miles of hiking, so you need the endurance to stay with the team. And you need to be able to go up and down steep terrain.”

“We usually pick wreck sites that require some work to get to. That’s our skillset.”
Simon Donato

5. Start Looking

“Most of the time, these planes are pretty broken up and tucked into steep ravines and that’s why they’re lost to the rest of the world. But you have to remember they’re metallic. So if you catch them at the right light, there will be some kind of reflectivity or glint. We use binoculars and from a distance, we start scanning the area we think the wreckage will be to see if we get any kind of reflectivity. We also train our brains to look for things that are different—a geometric shape, a hard edge. The steeper the hillside, the greater the chance the wreckage will be spread out. If it’s fairly flat, it can be more centralised.”

6. Search and Recover

“Once you find a plane, take pictures. Typically you need to find the tail number to identify the aircraft. Then you can use databases to see if that corresponds to any missing plane. If you can’t find that, you have to dig deeper and look for embossed plates on the metal. That can determine the manufacturer and you can sometimes find out what plane or what vintage it is, then hone in on missing planes from that era.”

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02 2016 The Red Bulletin

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