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THE SEARCH FOR WALT RAY'S A-12 ARTICLE #125

By Jeremy Krans

I would like to say this all started in late 97 or early 98 when I read a story by Tom Mahood on his now defunct Bluefire web page. In truth it started much earlier than that. It started in the mid 80's when my father brought a new model home for me, the SR-71. That was it, I fell in love with the plane the instant I saw it, I can only assume that was the general reaction for anyone that ever flew it also. Later came the F-19 Stealth, it was a good try. I later found out the truth behind that just before high school. I was amazed by the F-117A, for all its technological advances and its ugly good looks, This thing was all business. But, it did not have the sleek and sinister look of the Blackbirds, those things were fast even while parked on the ramp. They just did everything with more flair. Little did I know at that time, that our paths would cross again.

I saw the story on the internet about a guy who had been hunting for an A-12 for several years. I really had no idea the A-12 ever existed until then. My father had just recently died and I was spending time in the computer lab at the tech school I was attending. All kinds of Area 51 stuff, and I had just got back from a trip there a few months ago. This was interesting, and I decided I was going to find it too. I had no idea how big this project would be and was told by more than a few people how much it really wasn't worth it. I never liked lazy people anyway!.

I started collecting all the information I could, and tried to sort the good information from the bad, this took twelve years, by the way. I collected 7.5 minute maps of the area and quite a few 9 x9 aerial negatives. I finally got the information off Walt's death certificate I needed to track down more information. I had the name of the mining claim he went down near. That took a few more weeks and a bribe of a box of donuts to the Recorder's Office in Pioche, NV. It turns out there haven't been any mining districts since 1972, and there was quite the discussion about how the information is probably still there, just not in the computer. I eventually won that one too. I located the mining claims on my maps and even tracked down the miner and called him. He didn't have any info for me as he was done in that area around 64, but he was fun to talk to.

In fall of 98 I loaded up the car and headed out. By now I had a search area with a few probable roads that went apparently nowhere, just what I wanted. I drove as far as the Cherokee Mine and had to walk the next two miles or so. It was hard to tell what I was looking for, and after most of the day, I headed back armed with photos of the area and a map of the claim markers, which didn't always match up quite as they should have. I spent the next day looking for the plane crash and had to cross off a few places and circle a few on the map for next year, when I would bring a truck.

I made maybe two more trips with the same results. I was however getting to know this little corner of the world quite well and could drive there from Wisconsin, with my eyes closed. I found quite a few things interesting and learned a good bit of the local history. I did however, decide to give up. That would last for about six months, when I decided to get smarter before I make another trip. I bought more negatives in that time, and later found out that the USGS has gotten out of the negative business and gone all digital. That was not cheap. I did decide that maybe I was looking on the wrong side of a wash that I previously believed that plane did not cross. I found something in the aerials that just didn't look right, and was shown on the maps. It didn't jive with Tom's story exactly, but it didn't look entirely natural to me either. I then put in a FOIA request to the CIA and obtained some information from 1967. There were several sets of coordinates for both Walt and his plane. None of them were spot on, and some were closer than others, but one for the plane was close enough to my new search area to warrant yet another trip.

This time I left with a group of eight people in three trucks, we planned a vacation to include this search. This was fall of 05. We climbed Devil's Tower in Wyoming, saw some missile silos, checked out some mines, and saw Area 51, where Walt was headed that fateful day. When We got there, the area was quite different than I remembered. A large flood destroyed the area just a few months prior, the water was still high. The newly paved road leading into Meadow Valley was washed out to the center line in places, with 30 ft drops to the creek below. At one point we needed to cross it and we picked the widest and hopefully shallowest spot. Slowly we crept through with the water getting over the tires, waiting for the hood to drop under at any minute. That has happened before, but much closer to home. While cruising down the nicely graded gravel road at 45-50 mph that night, we saw a steep down slope right in front of us and slammed on the brakes. The two trucks behind us did the same and got sideways, narrowly avoiding a pile up. While we could drive down it, we would have probably hovered a good 10 ft over the road until we landed. The road never did that in any previous trips. I think we all were glad when we finally got to our destination and there were no more surprises like that. We searched in a big circle around one set of coords, the ones I thought most probable. We did find a white ceramic piece that had no earthly business being there. I was pissed. I wanted to believe that it was a part of #928 so bad, but wouldn't let myself. It turns out that four years later, we would find several more of these, thus confirming we did find the plane in 05. This lone piece was located on a hilltop, within a mile radius of the actual crash site.

Toward the end of that trip we climbed Tickaboo Peak to spy on Groom Lake. It was a surreal experience climbing it at night and having a few beers when the runway lights lit up for a few minutes. We probably won't find out what went up or came down that night for a dozen years. I think it was probably then and there, that Nick decided to join in the hunt in the following years.

The next trip I made was in 08. My daughter Mercedes was eager to get some field work in, as she had just turned four and had been helping out and going over Tom's story with me for the past year or so. Robin, my girlfriend and her nephew, Steven came with on this one. We picked Nick up at the airport in Vegas and headed into Meadow Valley armed with a pair of 4 wheelers in tow. We camped out a few miles from the crash site as it has been dark out for the last hour or so and I never took this way in before and had no idea what to expect. We made a fire and ate and Nick and I stayed up after everyone else went to bed. We sucked beers and caught up on old times, and just enjoyed being in the desert.

Poor Nick ended up going out looking for that spot I found several years ago in the pictures, a bit hung over and the 115 degree heat wasn't helping. We left the others in the truck with a bit of shade for maybe an hour or two and the AC. We grabbed as much water as we could carry and took off on the 4 wheelers. We could cover more ground, but that heat was still brutal. We spent 4-5 hours searching smaller washes off the main one and it turns out that area I was looking for, just wasn't it either. We checked hills and ridges, and just couldn't find any sign of wreckage. We did find a few water bottles from previous explorers, so we knew we must be close. We ended up leaving and heading to Pioche to explore some mines and ruins.

While sitting around the fire, at a much higher and cooler elevation, it struck me! I ran back to the truck and grabbed my folder and showed Nick the picture of the crash site. A land feature he pointed out earlier that day as a landmark, was right in front of us! We headed back two days later and drove the truck right to it and I held up the picture and went to different places to get the same angle to match it up. It was close, but just not exact. I guided the rest of the group to a spot that looked like the impact area and then joined them scouring the hillside. Nothing. This just couldn't be happening. We ended up leaving, but something just told us that we were close. I could smell it.

We decided to head to where Walt went down and everything was just as I remembered it all the way to the Cherokee Mine. After that the road got a bit rougher and harder to follow. For 30 years it was a very easy place to navigate, but the last few years nature took over with a vengeance. I started to wonder if I was in the wrong place until I found a familiar sight. There was a spot in the road where it made a left around a rock outcropping and had a steep drop on the right. There was the familiar Ford pickup hubcap laying there too. Soon we were at the miners camp, but the headframe farther up the road was gone and there had obviously been a fire in the area. We couldn't get past the camp in a stock truck and with the kids, we decided to head back, too much walking in rough country and 115 degree heat was more than we wanted to deal with this trip.

I talked to an online source who had been there and he suggested that I was very close and gave me some good advice. After going over the maps and GPS coords I had, it was beginning to look like we missed the site by one wash. We had driven past it to get to the place I found on the aerials. We had searched several hilltops and washes between there and the hill where I found that first piece. We had stopped just short of the actual site. Had we spent just another 15 minutes searching, we would have found it. This had to be it. We had to make one more trip to find out.

In October of 09 we set out once again. Joining me this year were Alex Prinz, Dan Dockery, and his friend Eric. We met up with Nick Roberts again and his friend Brian Wadyka. They got a late start from Oregon and had no wipers and a rain storm, which turned to snow around Pioche, about 3500 ft above us. We waited in Caliente, had a beer and our last good meal for the next few days. When they arrived, we loaded up on supplies and headed toward the plane. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, when you're 1500 miles from home and in the middle of the desert, and don't need a mapG€šand know where most of the drop offs are at night. The trip from town takes a bit more than an hour, or about three beers. When we got there we set up camp a short hike from where we wanted to go and decided to set out in the morning. We sat around the fire, by now, this is routine. We talked about previous trips and got some of the new guys up to speed. They were not so new, as they were new to this. Someone asked me if after twelve years I just expected to walk over there and find the plane. "Yup" I said puffing on a cigar and finishing a brew, "at least I hope so."

I've been here too many times and know too many places that it wasn't. That may sound dumb, but eventually, like a life-size game of Battleship, it just can't hide anymore. The playfield is only so big, and we were standing right in it. The photos don't lie, the CIA may, but even they are plagued with bad information. I have come to expect over the last dozen years, that very few people ever knew the exact location, and even less now. Not often does X mark the spot, but it's close. Trouble is, out here, close is not counted in inches, but degrees, minutes, and seconds. So to answer your question, yeah, it nagged at me all night.

Brian introduced me to tortillias, not that I never used them, but I didn't use them like bread and refried beans like butter. Being from Wisconsin, I had an endless supply of brats and cheese and a half dozen kinds of mustard and BBQ sauce. Plus we ran the town of Panaca, about 15-20 minutes before Caliente, out of Hamm's . This is the food of kings my friends. And our kingdom smelled great in the morning.

Alex and I got up before the others and decided to assess the situation. We walked through the wash and I pointed out a few landmarks and places where we have explored on previous outings to the area. I showed him the general area that Walt came down and where he was headed. You couldn't tell much from here, not like in the air. I showed him the hill where I found that first piece three years prior. At the time I still wouldn't let myself be convinced that I had found a piece, but man, it just had to be. When we got back to camp several of the guys were up and getting the fire going for breakfast. We ate and maybe around 10 o'clock we headed toward our destination.

We walked through the wash, and turned where Nick and I left off from the year before. I walked up this side wash and before long I was shouting and bending over picking up that first piece. Everybody behind me scattered forward and up both hill sides. Soon we were in the middle of the debris field. There are no words for what I was feeling at that moment, a moment that lasted for about three days before even starting to taper off. The rest was just several hours of us finding pieces and mapping the area, pretty mundane stuff, I won't bore you with the details.

Later that afternoon, we decided to take a drive into another spot in the Mormon Mountains, looking for an F-4 that crashed in the same time period. Still never found that. We drove through the wash a different way than we came and the trip was pretty uneventful. We had a nice time and all and saw some great country. It wouldn't even be worth writing about, except to tell the next part of the story.

The next morning, we were all still pretty excited and decided to go looking for where Walt came down. So the majority of us had a breakfast beer to start the day out right, we were on vacation. Grabbed a quick bite to eat and got moving before it started to get hot. Alex was riding on the roof, another tradition on our vacations. In places like these it is rare to sprint up to 6-7 MPH. Someone had just handed him a brew and he just had time to open it before I was hitting the brakes and he was yelling to stop the truck, within a fraction of a second of each other. We both saw a glint off an object just outside the wash. We didn't notice the day before, going the same way. The sun was lower in the sky and it hit us just right, an hour either way and we could have missed it. Alex somersaulted off the roof, bounced off the hood, and hit the ground running. He didn't spill a drop. He picked up the object, it might have been garbage for all we knew. His face changed as soon as he turned it around, it was Titanium, and it was #928!

All the doors opened up and we all jumped out and fanned out over the next few ridges. We covered quite some ground and after maybe three hours, everyone was back at the trucks and we had almost a dozen pieces. Nick and Alex had found two pieces well over a half mile apart, and only after we laid them out for photos, did they notice that they used to be the same piece. This think must have tumbled hard for it to break up like this. I would venture that there is more of it scattered on the way to the main impact site. After photos, four pieces came with us and the rest were scattered to the wind, back where they came from. There are even less words for what we were feeling that day.

We headed to where Walter went down, several miles from his plane. It was a bit of a drive, as there was no direct route. We got past the Cherokee, and to the miner's camp, but after that it was hard to find the way. On the way between the Cherokee and the camp, I was just remarking to the guys how much I liked it out here and don't have to see another person for a week if I don't want to. Around the next corner, we ran into a couple waking down the road. They were just as surprised to see us. Their Jeep broke down a few miles from there and we offered them a ride back to their truck and camper. They offered us a beer for the ride and we talked about old ghost towns in the area, which we investigated a few days later.

We headed back the way we came and turned toward where Walt went down. The headframe that I used as a landmark was still gone and the road' wasn't far behind. We ended up on the wrong hill, in the wrong direction. We got a few sunset pictures and left. I was really wanting to place the marker I made for Mr. Ray, but I wanted to get it right. We would return later after I put some waypoints in my GPS marking the road. It was getting too late to be of much good searching that night.

We made the return trip in 2011, this time bringing my daughter Meredes again. She was excited to finally find the plane that she had been wanting to get for half of her life. We were to meet up with Brian and Amber where we camped on the last trip. They were several hours ahead of us and had coords and directions labeled on their map. It was well after midnight as we headed down Hwy 317, and to our surprise, we found the road had been patched up. I was hoping that they made it ok because the turn to get in the right wash can be hard to find at night. As we got close, there was a washout that made us take a detour over higher ground. I noticed the tracks in the sand matched Brian's tires, so that was a good sign, but they were popular tires. Then I noticed a Pabst upside down and the sand was still damp around it. They had to do some shoveling to get through here and it must have taken some time, plus Brian drinks Pabst. I felt like Crocodile Dundee, tracking him like that. Our truck got over the berm ok, but Nico and Ashley got the Jeep stuck. They piled in the truck with what they needed for the night and we would go back the next day to unstuck the Jeep in the daylight so we wouldn't wreck anything.

We met Brian and Amber just as they were going to bed at 2am. We set up camp and hung out for a bit. Brian and I finally turned in as the sun was coming up. We went to the crash site just before noon and spent some time gathering pieces. Mercedes was very excited as she bounded from piece to piece, finding some real good ones. We were probably there for about two hours when I heard Amber screaming and some of the guys looked pretty excited near a Yucca. There are sometimes some good pieces buried under and around the Yuccas and I just assumed they found something outstanding. Turned out to be a rattlesnake. You'll run into plenty of them out here if you spend enough time.

By mid afternoon Brian and Amber had to head to Las Vegas to pick up Dan and Nick. We headed out with them to get recover the Jeep that was blocking the way back to the world. We just shoveled under it a bit to lessen the chance of damage and gave it a few tugs with a strap to pop it out. After we cleared the trail, we headed back to camp and went looking for some of the bigger pieces. Mercedes found one almost as big as her and decided that it would hang on her wall, she was grinning from ear to ear.

The next day we headed to Walt's site and we found the road in even worse shape than the last time. We had to park over a mile from where we were headed. Patti Jo was not used to the terrain and was pretty worn out from all the hiking up and down the ridges before we got here. She stayed at the truck and Robin stayed to keep her company. I asked Mercedes if she wanted to stay with them because it was going to be a long hike cross country and up hill all the way there. She wanted to go with us. We grabbed our gear and the small monument I made and headed out. Not long into the hike, Mercedes asked me why we were doing this. "Because no one else did." was all I could say. We easily found the remains of the headframe with the help of the waypoints I put into my GPS. Then we headed through a valley toward the hill where he came down. We found some old cans and other evidence from the area's small and brief mining past. Then we finally came to the hill. There had been a fire here too since that last time I was here over ten years ago. I don't think I wanted to know the exact spot, and we all decided that a large rock outcropping would be the most fitting place, as it was the most prominent feature in the area. Slowly we made our way up to it, the significance of why we were here was sinking in. We looked for a spot to place the plaque, and someone had one piece of Mr. Ray's plane in their pocket by chance. It was decided that it too would stay here. We had a beer with Walt and started to make our way back.

Nick, Mercedes, and I were the last to leave, having spent the most time to get here. It was a good feeling knowing that in some small way he would be honored for his contributions to this country, something tangible. There isn't much written about Walt, and not many people know his story. I'm hoping that this might change that, even just a little. I know a little girl that's starting the second grade in a week that will never forget his story. I know for a fact that her whole class and her teacher are going to hear all about her trip to honor a hero and see some pieces from his plane that flew over 3 times the speed of sound and at the edge of outer space.

Related articles:

Bio Walter Ray

Building a Blackbird by Jeremy Krans

Salute To A Fallen Airmen - Walter Ray

Crash Site of Walt Ray and A-12 Article 125

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