The Invisible Crash

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The Invisible Crash

After finding Ray’s impact point, or at least being within a few hundred yards of it, I was pretty excited. I made a few calls to some of the others interested in the search, to ensure they knew how truly great I was. Of course I downplayed the fact I had no idea where the damn plane was…. you have to work with what you’ve got.

One of the people I contacted, Randy Mathews, was in the process of trying to get hold of me. Randy flies for Delta Airlines, and has a strong interest in unusual aircraft. He’d been interested in the A-12 crash since I first told him about it on one of the Tikaboo hikes. His job affords him a lot of free time, which he spent working his own angles on the crash.

Randy’s one of those “people persons”. You know, the kind that can just walk up to strangers and engage them in conversation like an old friend. I normally hate those sort of people, but Randy is an exception. He had spent some time out in Caliente talking with old-timers out there: BLM folks, firemen, and ranchers. He also talked with a few folks at Lockheed, as well as former Blackbird pilots. He had picked up a few tidbits here and there, but had just come across some really solid leads.

He had tracked down a rancher in Rainbow Canyon who had run cattle in the Meadow Valley area in the late 1960s. The rancher remembered the crash well, and told Randy about where it was. He also told of how the roads around the site had been closed for over a week, and how tight security was. His directions to Randy were quite specific, as some of the topographical features he mentioned were unique to the area. After talking to the rancher, Randy made a brief exploration of the location, not finding anything, but he was pressed for time so his search wasn’t real thorough.

I was very surprised when Randy described the location to me. I had visited the same spot, just a few days before on my trip to Ray’s site, and apparently only a few days after Randy. Great minds think alike! I was checking a few suspicious spots, one of which was a curious piece of road. After walking around the area a bit, I found no trace of anything other than hunters and maybe a little mining activity. But according to the info Randy had, I hadn’t gone far enough.

Now this was looking real promising! For the first time we had eyewitness testimony, the location was close to 70 miles from Groom, and it was around 10 miles from Ray’s impact point. Why was this 10 mile distance important?

I had three newspaper reports that were detailed enough to specify a distance from where they found Ray to where the A-12 crashed. The Los Angeles Times simply said Ray was found 10 miles away. The Las Vegas Sun said that Ray was found 10 miles east of the crash site. Finally, in an apparent contradiction, the Las Vegas Review-Journal said Ray was found 3 miles east of the crash site. The correlation between the Sun and the Times was good, but the R-J was a real oddball. My gut reaction was that the plane should have been generally heading toward Groom, so I’d expect to find it somewhere in the quadrant from the south to the west of Ray, so I was inclined to put aside the R-J story for now. The story obtained by Randy from the rancher certainly fit the bill. However it was certainly possible that after Ray ejected, the plane could have swung in any direction.

I went back to my collection of aerial photos and studied them under high magnification. Sure enough, there were sizable spots of light colored, disturbed ground near where the rancher said. Dis must be da place!!!

We quickly got together what we called “The last A-12 expedition” and headed out on December 16 and 17 of 1995. Jeri and myself were there, as well as Pete Merlin and Randy. We even talked Glenn into coming again since we were going to find it this time and he could document it. He’s a sucker about things like that.

Using the photos as a guide, we wandered across the ravines looking for the impact scar. What we found was not a scar, but a number of natural, light colored outcroppings that looked like scars on the photos. No matter, we had the rancher’s story, so it had to be around here somewhere. All day long we went up and down the canyons, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing was to be found. We started to think that maybe the ranchers story got garbled in the translation, and we were at the wrong spot. We decided to head for Caliente to spend the night, and on the way look up the rancher at his place in Rainbow Canyon. Glenn gave up in disgust and headed back to Rachel, never to be lured back out there again. Smart man.

Our horde converged on the ranch, only to find the rancher gone. His hired hand told us he was at his home in Caliente, but we could contact him there. But when we told the hired hand what we were looking for, he also expressed knowledge of the crash site. It meshed with the original story we had, but he was less aware of the details. Still, it was a match on location.

We all headed to Caliente and got a place for the night. Then, maps and photos in hand, we walked over to the rancher’s home and had a nice talk with him. As expected, he was pretty certain about the location, even pointing it out to us on the aerial photo and topo maps. Some details were a little hazy after almost 30 years, but that was to be expected. He said he rode out to look at the spot after security had left the area and said there were pieces of “aluminum” lying around, and the ground was all dug up. It seemed we had simply not ranged out far enough in our search earlier that day. No problem, as we could head right on back the next morning.

Which is exactly what we did. We headed out, armed with shovels and metal detectors. Pete was even lugging a seive with which to sift material. We were that confident. Well, we walked and we walked. We walked well beyond where the rancher told us it would be, and as usual, nothing was to be found. No trace of a very large aircraft, nor any sign of what had to be a sizeable security presence that would have camped there for a week and a half. The military just isn’t that clean and tidy!

We dragged our sorry butts back to the cars late in the day. This didn’t make any sense! It had to be there, but it wasn’t. My gut told me very strongly that this rancher was being straight with us, plus we had the corroboration of the hired hand. The distances all made sense too. Yet we scoured the area and found only a few recent vintage beer cans. What the Hell was going on here??? This appeared to be a serious violation of Merlin’s first law (there’s always something left), and could damage reality as we know it.

The first part of 1996 was spent trying to make sense of what we knew (or more precisely, why what we knew didn’t make sense). I was also trying other tactics. In January of 1996, I sent a FOIA to the CIA asking for some rather specific information regarding the crash recovery. Not hearing anything, I wrote them again in February. Finally, I heard back from them that it was being “processed”. Every so often, I give those fine folks a call, and let them know I’m still interested in it (BTW, it’s a very weird feeling to have a message left on your answering machine by the CIA!). As of this writing, September, 1997, I don’t have anything back from them. My consolation is that it wasn’t denied outright, but was sent out for processing. Perhaps in another year, I may get something of use to fill in a few gaps. (ATTENTION CIA: Nyaah, nyahh…I know where it is, I know where it is……..)

Too many hours of staring at the aerials kept convincing me I was missing something. I would see likely spots on the aerials, and thought I had missed seeing them on the ground. Then, after heading back out there and actually visiting the area, it was obvious I had already covered the areas several times on foot. After the April 18, 1996 Extraterrestrial Highway dedication lunacy, Jeri, I, Jim Bakos, Stu Brown and Dave Darlington headed out to camp near where the rancher said the crash was. I spent some time going over a couple remotely possible spots with a metal detector, but turned up not a trace. I was beginning to think something else more sneaky might be going on.

Just about every crash tracked down by people I knew was some sort of military or commercial aircraft. No one to my knowledge had ever tried to find a CIA aircraft. Perhaps the CIA played by different rules? After all, the A-12’s existence wasn’t declassified until 1981! Could it be possible that what the rancher reported to us was “staged” by the CIA as a diversion and the actual crash site was many miles away? The CIA excelled in smoke and mirrors, and this was smelling smokey. That was starting to be the only scenario that fit the apparent facts. If this were the case, Merlin’s first law would not be violated, it’s just that the stuff that was left was simply someplace else….somplace we hadn’t found yet. (BTW, this is how conspiracy theories start)

The only thing I knew with certainty was where Ray hit (although I hadn’t found the precise spot). How far could the damn plane have gone? Good question. Dragging out my physics books, I did a number of computer simulations of what would happen to an A-12 if the pilot took a walk at 45,000′. From the info I had gleaned from speaking to Blackbird pilots, it was unlikely the thing would remain in any sort of glide, so I assumed it started tumbling. To do a simulation like this, there are all sorts of assumptions one has to make as far as drag coefficients, initial velocity and altitude (not to mention changing air density). Guessing what the drag coefficient for a tumbling A-12 is an interesting problem all by itself. But the bottom line was this: There didn’t appear to be any way the plane could make it 10 miles. 5 or 6 miles looked like a more reasonable maximum distance, with 3 miles being most probable. This changed the search considerably. Perhaps the rancher was victim of a CIA scam, and the plane actually was much closer to Ray’s impact point.

Skipping the hot season, Jeri and I returned to the area around the Cherokee Mine in October, 1996. Using the aerials, I had spotted some really interesting scars on a hillside near the mine that looked very promising. Also, there was what looked like an old airstrip blazed into the plateau the mine is on, something that could have been part of the recovery operation. The scar turned out to be from an old brushfire, totally devoid of sexy titanium parts. The airstrip was precisely that, but from the age of the yuccas growing in the middle, it had to have been older than 1967. Another strikeout….so what else was new?

Since we were in the general vicinity, we decided to return to Ray’s impact site and see if we could find it’s precise location. By “precise location”, I mean where his seat actually hit. After all those months, I still found the military campfire spot quickly. I had brought along a metal detector and swept the area, including the apparent chopper pad. I found a few aircraft screws, and some other unknown items that seemed of military vintage.

That done, we headed east, where the death certificate said Ray had died. In an area I hadn’t covered before, we started coming upon a few non-natural items, like old litter. An old plastic knife, and a couple of old wipers for old style Polaroid film, as well as weathered wrappers from what appeared to be old movie film. There was also another rusted smoke canister.

Items found at Ray's impact area

I was carefully scanning the ground, when my eye caught the glint of smokey glass. I dropped to my knees to have a look, and found it to be a small piece of thin, slightly curved, scratched, smoked glass, of apparent optical quality. Could this be part of Ray’s visor? I yelled at Jeri to come on over, and she started my way. As she got about five feet away, she suddenly stopped, pointed to her feet, and made sort of a gurgling sound. Normally, this sound would have something to do with rattlesnakes, so she got my immediate attention. But instead of a snake, half-buried in the soil was a twisted pair of sunglasses!

Carefully digging them out, they were a narrow pair of American Optical, solid 12k gold aviator glasses. One lens was smashed out (the piece of glass I had found was part of it) and the remaining lens was deeply scored. The damage and manner of deep scoring made it unlikely they belonged to a member of the recovery team and had been dropped and stepped upon. Given their size and quality, it’s most likely they were Ray’s, although I’d guess they were not being worn but were in a pocket in his flight suit instead.

With all these pieces before us, the scenario became obvious. We could see how he hit the upper parts of the slope and must have bounced down. There was a large, somewhat damaged cedar tree that was at the bottom of this open area, against which Ray must have finally come to rest. It was around this tree we found all the film remnants.

 

Walt Ray's impact site

So, we had pinned down Ray’s impact point with precision. But it was most definitely a consolation prize, bearing certain macabre overtones. It was also frustrating and embarrassing at the same time. I could find the impact point in the middle of nowhere, of something as small as an ejection seat, and the spot where a small recovery team spent less than 24 hours. Yet I was unable to find where something as big as a 737 hit, and had a sizeable military encampment for over a week. What was going on here, anyway???

I was rapidly running out of ideas, but I had a last one up my sleeve. I had long since wised up and rather than ordering B&W prints of the USGS aerial photos, I ordered the negatives instead. They were cheaper than the actual prints, and this allowed me to enlarge only the more promising areas (not that there were many, anymore). Keeping in mind my calcs as to how far 928 could have made it from Ray, I did a massive (and expensive!) enlargement of everything within 3-4 miles of where Ray hit. There were a few possibilities, but all the other roads on the photo were clearly part of mining operations. Still, we did one last trip out there to check out a few anomalies, and crossed them off the list. By this time I certainly knew where the plane wasn’t. I was an expert!

I was at a complete loss for what to do. I had run down every lead I could find, even the farfetched ones. Not even the eyewitness leads panned out. It didn’t make any sense to just wander around out there, as we had already done plenty of that. The aerials allowed me to rule out very large portions of the search area, as they clearly showed nothing. It looked as if the only hope might be something from the CIA, if and when my FOIA request ever turned up.

I was about to head back to school, and had to put this project aside. It really, really bothered me though. That plane was out there, somewhere. Why couldn’t we find it?


All Bad Things Must Come to an End, the next installment