MINDEN, Nev. — High above a landscape of canyons and shadows, veteran pilot Jim Herd sees a tiny flash on a mountainside. A mirror? Plane wreckage?
Flying closer reveals a prospector's small mine, the reflection most likely coming from metal fencing or broken glass. It was just another false alarm during a week of mysteries and dashed hopes in the search for missing aviator Steve Fossett.
Despite a massive rescue effort, the otherworldly terrain of northwest Nevada has bedeviled the crews that have been hunting around the clock since the world-renowned adventurer disappeared Monday. Flying over mountains, flats, canyons and gullies — a land of tricky shapes and shifting light — it's easy to see how Fossett's plane has eluded them.
"When you stare down at the desert long enough, you'll know it when you see something that doesn't look normal," said Herd, guiding his Beechcraft Bonanza toward a barren ridge, its gentle folds giving it the appearance of a rumpled blanket from 2,000 feet overhead. "But you can be fooled. Even a broken beer bottle will sparkle when the light is just right."
The skies over the search area — more than 10,000 square miles, or an expanse the size of Massachusetts — have swarmed with aircraft since Fossett was reporting missing Monday from a private ranch owned by hotel mogul Barron Hilton.
Because Fossett didn't file a flight plan, a common step among pilots of small planes, search crews have been guessing
where the record-setting aviator might be. On Friday, 26 airplanes and helicopters took off from the official search headquarters at the Minden Airport.
Most of the planes are small aircraft flown by members of the Nevada, California and Utah Civil Air Patrols and contain a pilot and two spotters.
Not only must they cover a vast territory of high peaks, steep canyons and sagebrush-filled plateaus, but the continuous scanning itself becomes monotonous and draining.
Fatigue sets in when flying at about 1,000 feet above the ground for hours at a time. The crews are bounced by turbulence and strain to see even the smallest detail that might seem out of place in an austere landscape that seems to stretch forever.
"You have to keep from getting real fatigued and losing your concentration out there," said Randy McLain, a Nevada Civil Air Patrol officer searching for Fossett.
In the Beechcraft, pilot Herd retraces part of the route Fossett initially took when he left Hilton's Flying M ranch about 80 miles southeast of Reno. Authorities said Fossett was looking for a smooth, dry lake bed on which he could make an attempt to set the land speed record.
Fossett, 63, headed south in his single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon. He most likely would have threaded through 8,000-foot-high Lucky Boy Pass, the safest route in that section of the mountainous terrain.
Once he cleared the pass, Fossett could have flown in any direction.
If he turned east over Walker Lake, where sonar is being used to see if his plane is on the bottom, Fossett would have flown around wind-swept Mount Grant.
At 11,245 feet high, the peak dominates the horizon. The many deep canyons and crevices on its flanks also are being examined.
"There are a lot of ravines that are hard to search ... a lot of nooks and crannies we have to look at," said Nevada Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan.
There are enough land forms and scattered debris to attract attention from any of the air crews searching for Fossett.
On many of the mountains, pinon pines cover the slope. They are no taller than 15 or 20 feet, but that's enough for a small airplane to slide underneath and be nearly invisible from above.
Searchers already have had several false leads. They became excited earlier this week when they spotted a plane wreck from the air. But a helicopter crew reached the site and determined it was a plane that went down decades ago.
Rescue crews were dispatched to another downed plane Friday that was spotted on a hillside about 45 miles southeast of Reno. It, too, turned out to be an old crash, a plane last registered in Oregon in 1975, Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford said.
From the air, it's easy to see how hope can give way to disappointment in the blink of an eye.
Is that a patch of scorched earth, or just a band of colored rock? An object that appears promising from a distance turns out to be nothing more than a small storage shed.
Despite the searchers' frustration and their few clues, they remain hopeful, knowing that Fossett has a Houdini-like history of escaping from seemingly impossible jams.
He has held 116 speed or distance records on land, air and water, including being the first to circle the globe alone in a balloon. His portfolio also includes numerous rescues after spectacular failures, several from the ocean.
On Friday, however, another disheartening development emerged. Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Chuck Allen said authorities believe Fossett had only one bottle of water aboard his small plane. Search officials said earlier in the week that it contained food and enough water to last two weeks.
The interest in the effort to find him is due in part to his notoriety and the many friends he has made in his quest to continuously push himself, including British billionaire Richard Branson.
After landing at the rescue headquarters in Minden, Herd explains that he'll be flying to San Francisco to pick up a longtime friend of Fossett's. He's coming from New Zealand to join the search.