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Hunting The ZEL: page #2

by Curtis Peebles
Copyright 1999

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Harper Dry Lake

The stage upon which the adventure was played out was Harper Dry Lake. The lakebed is about six miles long and three miles wide, and is shaped like an elongated U with the long axis running east to west. At about the midpoint of the lakebed, it is crossed by a dirt road running north to south. Beside it is a barbed-wire fence. The area to the north of the lakebed is a gentle slope, with a surface of sand and small rocks washed down from the surrounding hills. The vegetation is scattered brush. There are a series of flood control channels to the west of the fence, and at the far western end of the lakebed is a solar power station. The only other man-made structures are an abandoned shed, well, and corral

The first search attempt I participated in was made on February 22, 1997. Merlin, Moore, and I drove out to the general area. The first problem was to determine the directions of the photos. It was immediately apparent that the shots of the engineers were taken looking almost due east. There were two sets of mountains, and the task became finding a position where the near and far mountains were lined up correctly relative to each other. The photos seemed to show a rolling landscape, with the impact point in a low area, and a rise in the background. In my initial viewing of the tape, I thought I could see a row of cars parked on this rise, indicating a road or hard surface

The other two photos were more ambiguous. The shots of the firemen seemed to have been taken looking almost due south, towards several low hills on the horizon. When the two lines of sight crossed, we would find the wreckage. There was not a clear view of the lakebed, but rather two long tan areas against darker areas of brush. This seemed to indicate the impact point was back from the lakebed, with the view of the lakebed blocked by the foreground brush. The overhead shot of the wreckage, however, showed an area almost bare of brush, with a light tan surface and only a scattering of darker rocks. This indicated a site on the edge of the lakebed. The problem was that all we had to work with was photos taken off the television screen

Because of the rolling terrain we saw in the photo of the engineers, we started in the general area of the channels, which was west of the fence. We first walked east, than turned back west. I followed Merlin, while Moore went out ahead, closer to the lakebed. This was more than simply a walk in the desert. We were tiny figures alone amid a vast desert. The only sound was our own footsteps on the sandy ground. The landscape extended for miles in every direction, while the horizon beckoned us onwards with the possibility of discovering the object of our quest. Moore was now somewhere out ahead of us, while Merlin's Jeep had become a small white dot behind us in the distance. We finally turned north, then back east, towards the Jeep, and through the flood control channels

Every now and then, the surrounding desert seemed to match that in the photos, but each time the feeling faded. At no time did we see any indication that the F-100 had crashed in this area. The ground was undisturbed, and there were no small metal fragments which might have come from an aircraft crash. When Moore came back, he said he had found a clue. He had headed farther west, past the old corral. At one point, he found a set of old truck tracks - so old there were bushes grown in them. The overhead shot had shown a fire truck at the crash site, and was possible that such tracks could remain even after four decades. Moore had found no debris, however. Despite this, the clue looked positive, and we decided to look there on our next attempt

Try, Try Again

The search adjourned for the summer months, and it was not until November 9, 1997 that the second try was made. We went to a part of the lakebed farther west than the area we had searched on the first try. This was the general area where Moore had found the tire tracks. We found a flat area close to the edge of the lakebed which seemed to match the overhead shot. The ground and vegetation was similar, and the surrounding terrain was rolling like that in the shot of the engineers. I felt sure this was the crash site. For more than an hour, I walked back and forth across the area, looking for the telltale glint of metal fragments. But they were not there. This was not the place

There was another disappointment awaiting us when we followed the tire tracks. They were as Moore had described them, a single set of dual wheel tracks that were so old that bushes were growing in them. If they had been made by the fire truck in the overhead view, then they would lead us right to the crash site. But as we followed them into the desert, it became apparent that they actually led to the corral area. They had nothing to do with the crash. We still didn't know where the ZEL F-100 was, but we did know where it wasn't. These first two searches indicated that we were looking too far west, and that the next attempt would have to be made to the east, close to the fence line. The desert still beckoned us on.

It wasn't until dusk that we started back. As we were driving, we noticed a pillar of fire in the western sky. This quickly grew into a huge iridescent egg-shaped bubble. As this egg began to fade, a contrail continued towards the south. It was a Delta II booster, carrying a payload of Iridium communications satellites being launched from Vandenberg AFB. The bubble was from the first stage as it shut down, while the subsequent contrail was the second stage exhaust. Both were lit by the Sun below the horizon

After we returned to Merlin's apartment, we re-ran the Runways of Fire tape. Seeing the video, we noticed several details. I had thought there was a line of cars in the shot of the engineers. On viewing it again, it was apparent that they were only bushes and shadows. This was important because we had assumed that the cars had driven along the banks of the flood channels

The normal time for searches such as this is between the late fall to the early spring, before the heat of summer begins. The winter of 1997/1998 was a severe one, however. On Palomar Mountain, it snowed as late as April 1998, there was still snow on the ground in May, and I did not turn off the wall heater until the start of June. Because of this, the third search was not made until June 27, 1998. Due to work requirements, Tony Moore, who had been on the first attempts, could not join us. Rather, this third search was made by Merlin, Tony Accurso, and myself

As our small band searched the edge of the lakebed, we had to cope with temperatures of over 100 degrees F. The heat made it hard to breath. The sky was a brilliant blue, while the glare from the sand was strong. Even the water in our canteens seemed to be hot. Our only company was a B-1B flying overhead. The small rocks on the desert floor were dark in color, but when they caught the light, they were highly reflective and glinted. They looked like bits of metal. At one point, we crossed an area which seemed to match the firemen shot. The brush and lakebed pattern seemed right, and there was rolling terrain to the north. I also found a piece of metal, but Merlin said that it did not look like it was from an aircraft

You must understand that we are in the middle of nowhere, it is really hot, and Merlin's Jeep is getting smaller and smaller. The Jeep was the only easy way home. At this point, a question occurred to me that should have been asked earlier. I asked Merlin and Accurso if, by any chance, either of them had told anyone where we were going? It turned out that they had.

We finally reached the fence and stopped. It was just too hot to go on. We turned around and went back to the Jeep. Despite the failure to find anything, I still believed that the one area which seemed to match the firemen shot looked promising. I remember thinking at the time that we had probably been within a hundred feet of the crash site. The desert was continuing to beckon us on

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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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