Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Steve Fossett's missing, in a Super Decathlon aircraft, which is known for its aerobatic abilities.

The Decathlon was designed by the Champion Aircraft Corporation, and is a derivative of the 7-series Citabrias. While the Citabria designs were and remain successful, and the 7KCAB variant of the Citabria had even added limited inverted flight capability, the Citabrias are not capable of “outside” maneuvers, those requiring significant negative-g loads. Pilots wanted an aircraft capable of more maneuvers, and the 8KCAB Decathlon was Champion’s answer.

Here's the manufacturer's specification page. Those who want to know a little bit more about the science and mathematics of search patterns can look here. It's not as simple as one might think. Nothing follows.


Blogger PiltdownMan said...

If his plane has crashed, an on-board ELT would immediately start broadcasting a distress signal on 121.5.

Satellites would have picked that signal, and CAP planes would be honing in on that by now, I'd think, but I haven't read anything about any ELT searches.

9/04/2007 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger F said...

Well I went out to the airport to offer my services in the search. The CAP didn't want any more aircraft out there in the search area, though. Maybe I'll go out tomorrow if the wind is lighter. My friend (with whom I search) has a Husky, which is perfectly suited for flying around this high desert and mountainous area. Two weeks ago we were involved in a search for a local glider, which ended sadly when he was found on the edge of Boundary Peak Sunday morning.

Mark's comment about an ELT is right on except for one thing: the CAP could find no ELT signal. (Actually, one was reported, but that now appears to be spurious.) In fact for a while we were encouraged by this, hoping he had landed on a dry lake or desert road and would be found sleeping under his wing. No joy on that yet.

As soaring pilots, we appreciated Steve's efforts to stretch the boundaries on soaring. I for one continue to hold out hope that he'll be found walking out of some remote canyon. F

9/04/2007 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The Super Decathalon is pretty well suited to what he was doing at the time, which reportedly was looking for suitable dry lake beds to use for a speed record attempt in some kind of a high speed car. That airplane has pretty good performance; I know someone who flys one in airshows. Of course, looking for dragstrips would tend to involve going down low in probably mountainous areas and there is always the problem of the old "fly up a box canyon" mistake, among others.

It is possible that he landed to check out a possible site and got bogged down, or had some other kind of very survivable landing mishap. Of course, one would have thought they would have got hold of him on the radio pretty fast in that case.

It is quite possible to smash up an ELT so badly that it will not work. But those kinds of accidents are usually nonsurvivable. It is even possible to take off and forget and leave the ELT on the ground (like the one I have sitting on the bench in my garage right now - oops!) but that is not very likely.

I can't imagine what a search in that sort of terrain would be like. I have only been involved in one over pretty much flat land and it involved first flying the known course to the planned destination and then flying back and forth grid searches on either side of it. As it turned out, the crash site was right on the planned course but was missed on the first fly over. In this case, there appears to be no course to follow since he was almost certainly just checking out likely spots.

Good luck to both Steve and the searchers.

9/04/2007 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Craigicus said...

August issue of Wired magazine has an article on the search for Silicon Valley luminary Jim Gray.

Looks like these folks pulled out all the stops to search, to include generating thousands of sattelite photos and organizing group searches of them.

9/05/2007 07:51:00 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

It's stressed for aerobatics but is not much of an aerobatic plane. (Citabria is airbatic backwards, by the way, hence the name of its predecessor. Another, and strange, spinoff of the Aeronca 7AC was a tricycle gear twin-engine version, supposed to capture the low cost twin engine training market, of which there was none.)

9/05/2007 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Here is some news:

"Even if the plane locator failed, Fossett usually wears a Breitling Emergency watch that allows pilots to easily signal their location, said Granger Whitelaw, co-founder of the Rocket Racing League."

Turns out that the Breitling Emergency watch has its own built-in transmitter that sends out an ELT-type signal on 121.5 MHZ, an encoded signal that can identify the specific user.

Back during Desert Storm the USAF started giving pilots hand-held GPS receivers so they could not only call for help on their survival radios but also give rescuers directions to their location. I believe they now have GPS built right into their survival radios so they can transmit their coordinates directly. In fact, for well under $100 you can buy an FRS transceiver (UHF) with a built in GPS receiver with the capability to transmit location data to other similar units.

9/05/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Billy Beck said...

RWE: thanks for reporting on the purpose of that flight. I flew a 7KCAB as a student from hour-one to PPL checkride, and was trying to imagine what he was doing that would get him that lost in that Decathalon.

This is all very curious. I sure hope it works out.

9/05/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Billy Beck said...

Ps. --

"Not much of an aerobatic airplane..."

My instructor used to fly Intermediate IAC competitions in that 7KCAB.

"Not much" is pretty relative.

9/05/2007 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My hunch is a heart attack, although a much better ending is finding him alive and having a great story to tell.

9/05/2007 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger The Anti-Jihadist said...

If Fossett had not one but two ELTs on his person/on board his aircraft, it's very curious that no signals have yet been detected. I can think of the following theories to explain the lack of ELT signal(s)

-Malfunction of the ELTs. One malfunction is possible, but a double malfunction of two units seems exceedingly unlikely

-No ELTs on board the aircraft. Perhaps Fossett didnt wear his ELT watch that day, and maybe he left the bigger ELT on the ground like one of the other commenters mentioned happening to him.

-A non survivable crash that smashed the ELT(s) to nonfunctioning bits.

-A controlled landing (perhaps on one of the very lakebeds he was surveying) followed by incapacitation of the pilot--like a heart attack. Of course, had Fossett put the plane down in one piece in a large flat area, he would have probably been found by now.

Is it possible for ELT signals to be obscured or blocked by extreme terrain--say, a crash into an exceptionally tight box canyon? It seems counterintuitive that such terrain could prevent a satellite from picking up a signal, but hey, anything is possible.

As the days stretch by, the odds of a happy ending get slimmer by the hour. I'll keep my fingers crossed, though.

9/05/2007 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

As to the purpose of the flight, Richard Branson said he thought that Steve Fossett was looking for dry lake beds where he could try for a new land speed record while a news reporter described the flight as a “joyride.” Okay, so both people are speculating, but Fossett may have just gone up to do some acro, - which would be bad news, considering that he has not been found. You would do acro pretty close to the airport, normally.

An ELT signal could be blocked by terrain, but not from an aircraft flying directly overhead. It would be more likely to be blocked from the SARSAT birds, which are in 450 NM sun synch orbits and thus do not fly over every square foot of the world every day. But I think that it would be found pretty fast.

Also, when the ELT requirement first came out in the early 70’s, aircraft that were intended for training and not flown more than 20 miles from their home base were not required to have ELTs’. That could very well apply to that Super Decathalon, which might only be used for local acro practice. Having one on board an aircraft that pulls that many G’s that often might not be a good idea.

I doubt that anyone would describe the Super Decathalon as being suitable for world class competition acro, even to the degree that a Pitts Special is, but what that airplane can do in the hands of a good pilot is quite impressive – like an inverted climbing 180 deg turn after takeoff.

9/05/2007 03:40:00 PM  
Blogger Billy Beck said...

You can review the FAR's on ELT's here.

I think it's a safe bet that he had one on board.

There was always one aboard the airplane that I flew, during acro.

9/06/2007 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger rickl said...

It's kind of ironic--or maybe synchronicity--that I've lately been reading about Amelia Earhart.

"The Search for Amelia Earhart" by Fred Goerner, 1966. He believes she landed in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, was captured and either died from disease or was executed.

"Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved" by Elgen M. and Marie K. Long, 1999. The authors believe she faced unexpectedly strong headwinds, ran out of fuel, and ditched in the ocean near Howland Island.

"Finding Amelia" by Ric Gillespie, 2006. He thinks she crash-landed on Gardner Island in the Phoenix Group and survived for a few days, at least, while frantically radioing for help.

Three excellent, well-researched books; three entirely different and incompatible conclusions. But if it were otherwise, then it wouldn't be a mystery, would it?

9/06/2007 08:42:00 PM  

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