Steve Fossett

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Steve Fossett: Mystery.

In late September 2008, a hiker was out in the Sierra Nevada in California with his wife and a couple of friends. The hiker had heard that there was an abandoned mine nearby so left the rest of the party to see if he could locate it.

He didn’t – but he found something far more remarkable, although he didn’t realise it at the time. He found a pilot’s license and some banknotes. The license was made out to James Stephen Fossett.Steve Fossett

What the hiker didn’t realise at the time was that Fossett had disappeared whilst on a solo flight more than a year previously.

At first the name didn’t ring a bell. The hiker didn’t realise that this was Steve Fossett who had circumnavigated the world in a balloon and, as a well known adventurer, held dozens of records for aviation.

He had also swum the English Channel, raced cars at Le Mans, taken part in sailing events, climbed mountains and generally spent years pursuing adventure.

On the day he disappeared, he had set off in a borrowed aircraft from a private airstrip in Nevada. It was thought that he was looking for dried up lakes in order to find a location for a land speed record attempt.

He took off at about 9am, intending his flight to be two hours long. He planned to have lunch with his wife back at their Nevada ranch.

But he was never seen again

He hadn’t registered  flight plan as it wasn’t necessary. The plane was carrying a locating system that was supposed to kick in should the plane crash – but it didn’t. By the following day, fourteen aircraft were scouring the area but located no wreckage. Although the plane was fully equipped with a radio, no transmissions had been received.

What followed was the largest ever search mission in peacetime history. But no clues were found. The wreckage of the aircraft wasn’t discovered, nor were Steve’s remains. The official searches were called off although others continued searching for over a year.

When the hiker found the identification and banknotes, he didn’t realise whose they were. It was only later that he discovered that these might be the most important clue to the disappearance of Steve Fossett. Via his lawyer, he tried to contact the Fossett family first – he said that had it been a member of his family he wouldn’t like to  hear such things on the TV – but it wasn’t possible. Therefore the police were contacted.

Several days later, a wrecked plane was located just 750  yards away from where the identification had been found. It was confirmed to be Fossett’s borrowed plane. But there was no body.

Eventually, two human bones were found about half a mile east of the wreckage.  DNA tests confirmed that these were Fossett’s.The authorities declared that he would have died on impact and that his body – sorry, this is a bit grim – would have been dragged to its location half a mile away by animals.

I’m not 100% sure that I’m satisfied with that

Points to consider:

  • For such an adventurous sportsman who had been so successful, it’s a little surprising that Fossett did not file a flight plan. Even though it wasn’t necessary by law, I suspect that he was accustomed to safety standards being maintained by the book
  • Why didn’t the emergency tracking system work when the plane crashed?
  • Why was there no radio contact?

But more than that …

Why was $1005 in banknotes discovered with his identification?

He had borrowed the plane and not rented it so he didn’t need the money for rental payments. The airstrip belonged to a friend – there were no fees involved there. His only plan for the rest of the day was to have lunch with his wife back at their home. So why should he be carrying so much ready cash? And it’s pretty safe to assume that there was even more that had been lost or damaged.

Little had been found of the man himself; just two bones. A sweatshirt and a tennis shoe, neither of which were 100% proved to have belonged to the missing man, were the only garments found.(Animals to the best of my knowledge do not eat clothing).

Yet fragile paper money had survived out in the open for over a year.

In addition to the pilot’s license, the hiker had found two other forms of identification. Details about how much of the wreckage of the plane had been found is hazy but I still find it rather unusual that the only items found were three forms of identification, $1005 and two bones.




Richard Branson of Virgin fame had helped finance several of Steve’s adventures. For many years I have regarded Branson as an insensitive clod – due to a run-in with him in the 1990s, a story too long to go into here. And he demonstrated this ably when his only comment to reporters when the aviator first disappeared was ‘Steve is a tough old boot. I suspect he is waiting by his plane right now waiting for someone to pick him up.’

Branson, you were wrong again, mate.



Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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1 Comment

  1. The moment I saw a link to this on Facebook, I knew the name was familiar, but couldn’t figure out why. What an interesting story. It’s probably as mundane, though nonetheless poignantly tragic, a case of pilot error and loss as any, but whenever I see a story like this, I remember a TV show I saw as a child in which a famous singer decided he couldn’t do it any longer and paid a humongous sum to have himself killed off convincingly enough that the world would forget about him. Unfortunately, the way his handlers disappeared him after his “death” was to lock him up in a windowless room for the rest of his life. He got tired of that after a while. too.

    For the family’s sake, I hope more information comes available and this man’s death and loss are no longer a mystery.

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