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Advanced Recon System Aids Fossett Search


The Civil Air Patrol is employing cutting-edge technology in the massive ground and air search to find Steve Fossett in a 600-sq. mi. mountains region of Nevada -- ARCHER, which stands for Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance system.

ARCHER, which CAP describes as the U.S.'s first large-scale, fully operational system of its type, is installed on a CAP Gippsland GA8-Airvan operated by the CAP's Utah wing. The airplane is one of about 14 fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol's Nevada, Utah and California Wings, the Nevada National Guard and the California Highway Patrol involved in the effort.

According to CAP, a set of parameters describing the intended target, including its color and shape, is programmed into the ARCHER system. Through an onboard aircraft computer, the system takes a spectral image of its target, relying on flight reflected from the object. The information is relayed by e-mail and satellite phone to ground units via CAP's satellite-transmitted digital-imaging system. A sophisticated algorithm allows ARCHER to differentiate a target from background clutter and identify it using as little as 10% of the target's characteristics.

Fossett was last seen the morning of Sept. 3. He departed solo about 9:00 am in good weather conditions from a private air strip at the Flying M Ranch near Yerington, Nev. His tandem two-seat taildragger, a Bellanca C8KCAB-180 (N420), had 4-5 hours of fuel onboard.

Friends say Fossett had set out to survey spots for practice runs of his S&S LM-1500 turbojet powered racer--with which he planned to break the land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats in late September. He was reported missing when he failed to return that afternoon as planned.

Rescuers are faced many challenges, including terrain pocked with deep ravines, and strong winds that at times have halted rescue work in the 600-sq.-mi. search area south of the Flying M Ranch from the Yerington, Nev to Bishop, Calif and along the eastern ridge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fossett did not file a flight plan, nor was he required to do so in visual meteorological conditions.

The search for Fossett entered its fourth day with no sign of the 63-year-old aviator, balloonist and yachtsman, who enjoyed nothing more than shattering world records.

According to the FAA, there is no FAA radar coverage in the area, so it is not known if Fossett might have turned on the aircraft transponder and been squawking the emergency frequency or common VFR frequency. Nor is it known if Fossett had attempted radio communication with an ATC facility to indicate he was in trouble. As of Sept. 5, rescuers had not picked up an aircraft ELT (emergency locater beacon), which starts emitting a signal following strong impact.

Richard Branson, who through his Virgin Atlantic airline has supported a number of Fossett's efforts, thought his friend Fossett to be "a tough old boot," someone who had the physical and mental conditioning to survive under harsh conditions.

Fossett was born in Jackson, Tenn., and grew up in California. He earned an economics degree from Stanford University in 1966. He later earned an MBA at Washington University at St. Louis and became a commodities broker. With income gained from the Lakota Trading securities company he launched in 1980, Fossett was able to fund his record-breaking pursuits.

And he shattered many. On Mar. 4, 2005, he completed the first solo, nonstop airplane flight around the world in the GlobalFlyer. In Feb. 8, 2006, in the same aircraft, which was built by Rutan's Scaled Composites and Virgin Atlantic, Fossett broke the record set in 1986 by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager for flying around the world without refueling.

The 2005 Collier Trophy was awarded to Fossett and other members of the SpaceShipOne rocket glider team for creating and demonstrating the first privately financed manned spacecraft. In 2003, he earned Aviation Week & Space Technology's Laureate award in Operations category for completing the first solo around the world balloon flight on July 2, 2002.

Non-aviation record breakers included Fossett and a 12-person crew breaking the Round the World Sailing Record on Apr. 5, 2004, in his 125-ft. maxi-catamaran, Cheyenne.

In July, Fossett was inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame at Dayton, Ohio.

Fossett and his wife of almost 40 years, Peggy Viehland, have no children.

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