Madera sheriff confirms Fossett wreckage

7:22 a.m.: The wreckage of adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane has been found in the Mammoth Lakes area.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said this morning that no remains of a body were discovered near the wreckage. Fifty ground searchers and five K-9 teams are combing the area this morning, he said.

The wreckage was found about a quarter of a mile from where Fossett’s pilot’s license was found by a hiker Monday.

Fossett vanished on a solo flight more than a year ago.

His story was included in The Bee's special series, "Lost Flights: The Sierra's deadly legacy."

Hiker finds Steve Fossett's pilot license

MAMMOTH LAKES -- A hiker in a rugged part of the Sierra about 75 miles northeast of Fresno found a pilot's license and other items that appear to belong to Steve Fossett, the adventurer who vanished on a solo flight more than a year ago, authorities said Wednesday.

Later in the day, one of the flight crews dispatched to search the area sighted what could be the wreckage of a plane, said Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart.

The Sheriff's Department sent in search and rescue teams to investigate and Sheriff John Anderson planned a press conference early today at Mammoth Lakes Airport to report any new information.

The information on the pilot license -- including Fossett's name, address, date of birth and certificate number -- was sent in a photograph to the Federal Aviation Administration, and all matched the agency's records, spokesman Ian Gregor said.

"We're trying to determine the authenticity of the document," Gregor said.

The hiker, Preston Morrow, said he found an FAA identity card, a pilot's license, a third ID and $1,005 in cash tangled in a bush off a trail just west of the town of Mammoth Lakes on Monday. He said he turned the items over to local police Wednesday after unsuccessful attempts to contact Fossett's family.

Mammoth Lakes police investigator Crystal Schafer confirmed that the department had the items.

Morrow said he found no sign of a plane or any human remains.

Fossett, whose exploits included circumnavigating the globe in a balloon, disappeared Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a single-engine plane borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.

Fossett's widow, Peggy, said in a statement Wednesday that she was aware of Morrow's discovery and that authorities were going to the site.

"I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband's remains," she said. "I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort."

Aviators had flown over Mammoth Lakes, about 90 miles south of the ranch, in the search for Fossett, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane. The most intense searching was concentrated to the north of the town, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett's plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.

G. Pat Macha, author and avid searcher of plane wrecks, said the discovery of Fossett's identification near Mammoth Lakes confirms his theory that the crash was in the Sierra. He said an eyewitness saw Fossett's plane over Highway 395 in the Owens Valley near the Sierra.

He predicted the wreck would be found in the next 24 to 48 hours.

"I think they'll find it," he said. "I think they'll remove the plane and fully investigate it because this is such a high-profile case."

Fossett's disappearance is only one of many tragic plane crashes in the 400-mile Sierra over many decades.

The Fresno Bee last month explored the mysteries surrounding Sierra plane crashes in a series of articles, called "Lost Flights: The Sierra's Deadly Legacy."

In the series, Macha predicted that Fossett's wreck would have to be found by Oct. 1 this year, or it wouldn't be found for a "very, very long time."

Macha, who co-authored "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California," explained that the Sierra winter would probably destroy evidence, such as the identification papers. The papers had somehow remained intact after last winter.

He and other experts say many plane crashes are discovered by hikers, backpackers, deer hunters, geologists and fishing enthusiasts, who usually are in the backcountry during warmer months.

Morrow, 43, who works in a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, said he initially didn't know who Fossett was. It wasn't until he showed the items to co-workers Tuesday that one of them recognized Fossett's name.

"It was just weird to find that much money in the backcountry, and the IDs," he said in an interview.

"My immediate thought was it was a hiker or backpacker's stuff, and a bear got to the stuff and took it away to look for food or whatever."

Morrow said he returned to the scene Tuesday to search further with his wife and three others, including a videographer who took video and photographs during the trip.

During that search, the group did not find any airplane wreckage or human remains, Morrow said. They did find a black Nautica pullover fleece, size XL, in the same area, but he wasn't sure whether the items were related.

Morrow said he consulted local attorney David Baumwohl, and they initially tried to contact the Fossett family but were unable to get through to their lawyers.

"We figured if it was us, we'd want to know first. We wouldn't want to learn from the news," Baumwohl said.

Baumwohl and Morrow tried to contact the law firm that handled the death declaration. When they weren't successful, they decided to turn everything over to the police, the attorney said.

Mammoth Lakes is at an elevation of more than 7,800 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

The hiker found the identification items near the jagged Minarets, a 12,255-foot peak about seven miles west of Mammoth Lakes in eastern Madera County.

This year's biggest search for Fossett focused on Nevada's Wassuk Range, more than 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes. That search ended last month.

The California Civil Air Patrol and private planes from Hilton's ranch previously had flown over the area, but it was "extremely rough country," said Joe Sanford, undersheriff in Lyon County, Nev., which was involved in the initial search.

One of Fossett's friends reacted to Wednesday's news with cautious optimism.

If the belongings turn out to be authentic, then that could help narrow the search area for possible wreckage, said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University who worked on Fossett's past balloon flights.

"It would be nice to get closure," Arvidson said.

Fossett gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats.