The Nevada Triangle

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After millionaire adventurer and record-setting pilot Steve Fossett took off in a small plane from a Nevada airstrip in September 2007 and vanished, rescue teams searching a 17,000-square-mile swath of the Sierra Nevada mountains for him made a grisly discovery. They found wreckage of eight other small planes that had similarly disappeared over the years. To believers in paranormal phenomena, that debris helped fuel belief in what British tabloids and cable newscasters had dubbed the Nevada Triangle, a supposedly lethal zone akin to the more famous mythical Bermuda Triangle.

The eventual discovery a little more than a year later of the wreckage of Fossett’s plane and the pilot’s remains resolved his fate. But it didn’t resolve the enigma of the Nevada Triangle, which stretches from Las Vegas in the southeast to Fresno in the west, with Reno at the top. Is some mysterious force or unknown hazard causing planes to vanish there? Or is it the Nevada Triangle just more fodder for sensationalist paperback authors and UFO enthusiasts’ Internet discussion boards?

As often is the case with purported zones of paranormal activity, hard data is difficult to come by. In the wake of Fossett’s disappearance, various news media outlets claimed that anywhere from 300 to more than 2,000 aircraft have crashed in the triangle over the past 50 years. However, the National Transportation Safety Board’s database lists a total of only 1,998 civilian aviation mishaps in the entire state of Nevada between 1960 and 2010. Most were nonlethal, and in almost all of them, the probable cause — from mechanical failure to a pilot who suffered a fatal heart attack at the controls — has been established. There also have been at least 200 military crashes, according to the web site of Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research, an organization that amasses documentation on crashes. When AAIR also searched records of missing civilian aircraft, it identified just 13 that may possibly have disappeared in the triangle since 1962.

Even so, there has been at least one mysterious disappearance in the vicinity of the triangle. Prior to Fossett’s crash, the most celebrated case of a missing aviator was that of Charles Ogle, a wealthy real estate developer who lifted off from Oakland in August 1964 but vanished en route to Reno. The discovery of the eight crashed planes in 2007 raised hopes that Ogle’s fate finally might be resolved, but none of the wrecks were identified as his.

Is there anything in the triangle which makes it particularly hazardous to aircraft? Some suggest the disappearances in the triangle are somehow related to the presence of Area 51, a secret military aviation test range that has long been an object of fascination for UFOologists, who’ve speculated that everything from captured flying saucers to the bodies of alien pilots are stored at the site. Though the U.S. government has long refused to acknowledge Area 51, former military aviators recently have confirmed its existence. In a 2009 Los Angeles Times article, Kenneth Collins, a former Central Intelligence Agency test pilot recounted his own crash inside the Triangle.

On May 24, 1963, Collins flew out of Area 51’s restricted airspace in a top-secret spy plane code-named OXCART, built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. He was flying over Utah when the aircraft pitched, flipped, and headed toward a crash. He ejected into a field of weeds.

Almost 46 years later, in late fall of 2008, sitting in a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, Collins remembers that day with the kind of clarity the threat of a national security breach evokes: “Three guys came driving toward me in a pickup. I saw they had the aircraft canopy in the back. They offered to take me to my plane.” Until that moment, no civilian without a top-secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the airplane Collins was flying. “I told them not to go near the aircraft. I said it had a nuclear weapon on-board.” The story fit right into the Cold War backdrop of the day, as many atomic tests took place in Nevada. Spooked, the men drove Collins to the local highway patrol. The CIA disguised the accident as involving a generic Air Force plane, the F-105, which is how the event is still listed in official records.

As for the guys who picked him up, they were tracked down and told to sign national security nondisclosures. As part of Collins’ own debriefing, the CIA asked the decorated pilot to take truth serum. “They wanted to see if there was anything I’d forgotten about the events leading up to the crash.”

 As this January 2010 article from the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, details, the explanation for the Nevada Triangle’s lethality may be a non-paranormal one.

A team from Channel Four found that the Triangle’s unique micro-climate creates fast-moving winds that rip planes out the air. The combination of Pacific winds and high mountains creates a phenomenon known as a ‘Mountain Wave’ – a rollercoaster effect that sends aircraft soaring up and down.

The documentarians believe that the dangerous wind effect may have been what caused Fossett’s fatal crash. The downdraft’s speed of 400 miles per hour theoretically would have overwhelmed his single engine Bellanca Super Decathlon, which had a maximum speed of just 300 mph.

The Truth Behind the Bermuda Triangle” airs Friday July 16 at 10P et/pt.