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Hunting The ZEL: page #1

A Tale of Desert Adventure, Crashed Airplanes, and a Search That Would Never End

by Curtis Peebles
Copyright 1999


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The adventure started simply enough. It began with the purchase of a video called Runways Of Fire on the Zero Length Launcher (ZEL) program. The ZEL flight test program involving attaching a rocket booster to an F-100D fighter bomber and launching it off the back of a flatbed truck. This would eliminate the need for runways, which could be destroyed by a Soviet attack. The F-100s could be dispersed to any open area to await the launch order

Despite the risk of launching a jet fighter off the back of a truck, there was only one accident in the course of the F-100 test program. On the second launch, made on April 11, 1958, the rocket booster failed to separate after burnout. This made it impossible to land the aircraft, as the rocket extended down below the landing gear. Al Blackburn, the North American Aviation test pilot for the project, attempted to shake the booster loose, but, with fuel running low, he was forced to bail out

The video contained extensive footage of these events. More important, there were three views of the impact site. The first showed an overhead shot which showed the aircraft wreckage and the surrounding area, a second was of firemen spraying the burning debris with foam, and finally, there was a shot of the engineers examining the wreckage, including the crusted rocket booster

I saw this video in late 1996. The 50th anniversary of what has become known as the Roswell Incident was a few months off. It occurred to me that the ZEL F-100 crash provided a test case for Roswell. The ZEL crash site was in a remote area, and it was unlikely that the remaining debris had been disturbed in the nearly forty years since the recovery crew left the site. Also, the circumstances of the ZEL F-100 crash itself resembled the claims made in different eyewitness accounts of the Roswell recovery. These individuals describe a vehicle which is battered but still largely intact. The F-100's fuselage was burned out by the post-impact fire, but the wings and tail surfaces were intact. The debris would be concentrated in an area about the size of the vehicle itself. This is in contrast to many aircraft crashes, where the high-speed impact scatters the debris several hundred feet from the point of impact.

For a number of years I have been friends with Peter Merlin, a member of the X-Hunters Aerospace Archeology Team. They locate the crash sites of various aircraft. Merlin has participated in the discovery of the crash sites of the N-9M, X-1A, X-2, X-15, and even a MK-17 H-bomb. He also made a search of the Roswell debris field, and appeared in a television UFO special at the YB-49 crash site. He was interested in trying to find the ZEL F-100. He talked with Al Blackburn, and tracked down press accounts. These indicated that the F-100 had crashed about a mile from the north edge of Harper Dry Lake, located east of Edwards AFB

The press accounts gave only the general location. They did not say what part of the north edge of the lakebed the plane was a mile from. This is where the photos came in. By lining up the features in the photos, such as background hills, it was possible to narrow down the specific area. Features in the vicinity of the crash, both natural and man-made, can further limit the search area. It is, for example, possible to identify a bush in a photo taken four decades ago with one growing today. Then it is a matter of walking across the desert, looking for the photos to line up, and the tell-tale glint of metal fragments. Merlin and Tony Moore made two preliminary searches of the area, looking well north of the lakebed, but were unsuccessful. Despite this, finding the ZEL F-100 did not seem to pose a major problem. Merlin had found crash sites with less information. None of us knew the adventure which awaited us in the desert


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The opinions in this article are exclusively those of Curtis Peebles based on his experience and many years of research and do not necessarily reflect those of "The San Diego UFO Information Homepage" or other organizations represented at this website. - Paul

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