PORTLAND (AP) – Ken Barbalace of Portland is helping search western Nevada where aviation adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane disappeared – even though he’s 3,000 miles away.

From a comfortable couch in his apartment, Barbalace is using his laptop computer and a high-speed Internet connection to search the vast, rocky terrain for signs of Fossett, the famed survivalist and aviator who vanished during a flight Sept. 3.

He is among the thousands of people worldwide who are using the combined power of Google Earth, which supplies satellite images over the Internet, and Amazon.com, which has created a Web system through which volunteers can scan images from within the search area.

To help in the search, Barbalace clicks on a Web site and scans images in search of an airplane or its wreckage. If he spots something that resembles the shape of a plane’s fuselage and wings, Barbalace will compare the image to Google Earth satellite images that were taken before Fossett disappeared. If the object wasn’t there before, that could be a lead.

Leads are passed on to Amazon and then to experts who analyze promising leads to determine whether searchers on the ground should check an area, Barbalace said.

Barbalace knows the odds are long. Government-backed searchers and private pilots have covered about 20,000 square miles in Nevada and California. Searching for Fossett’s plane, he said, is like looking for a “mangled needle in a giant field of haystacks.”

But the search intrigues Barbalace as an opportunity to push the limits of what the Internet can accomplish.

“The real potential for this is you’re breaking new ground,” he said. “This is the real power of the Internet. This could revolutionize search and rescue.”

The Civil Air Patrol has said that the search over the Internet has produced tips – most of them false alarms – from the world over. But a Civil Air Patrol official said the Web search is distracting, saying for the most part it’s a bunch of people trying to do something they don’t have the training for.

Barbalace, who is in his late 30s, said he has been spending 12 to 14 hours a day this past week scouring the digital landscape. He is a savvy Web user, having run corporate information technology departments and launched a successful Web publication.


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