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Hunting The ZEL: page #3

by Curtis Peebles
Copyright 1999

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When we got back to the Jeep, the three of us had sodas, with plenty of ice. Merlin then took us on a tour of historical sites of the Mojave desert, both ancient and modern. We went to two sites in the hills north of the lakebed where there were Indian petroglyphs. These are common in the hills north of the lakebed, and date from several thousand years ago. One of the sites was a small hill that had been fortified. It could still be seen where rocks had been placed to make walls. From the top of the hill the whole valley floor and Harper Dry Lake stretched out into the distance. It was an impressive sight, but frustrating as well. Somewhere in that expanse of brush was the debris we were seeking. I was looking right at the crash site, but I could not see it. We also visited four aircraft crash sites. They were of the X-2 and X-31 experimental aircraft, as well as an F-86H flown by Capt. Joseph McConnell, Jr. and finally an F-101. McConnell was the top-scoring U.S. jet ace in the Korean War with 16 kills. In 1954, he came to Edwards AFB to evaluate a new F-86H. During the flight, the elevators (which controlled the up and down position of the plane's nose) failed. McConnell had to fly the plane using the elevator trim. Rather than bailing out and losing the airplane, he tried to fly it back to a landing at Edwards. Several miles short of the lakebed, the attempt failed. McConnell bailed out, but he was too low for his parachute to open. The plane hit a quarter mile away, digging an elongated crater, and sending debris flying for 830 feet from the point of impact.

The site had been discovered only recently, and we were among the first to see it. Among the earlier visitors to the site was Patricia McConnell. She had been nine years old when the crash occurred. She had asked Merlin to show her the place where her father had died. Despite the passage of 44 years, the impact crater still existed, and there were large quantities of debris on the ground. The debris field was fan-shaped. It was easy for me to find the edge as I walked back and forth. Another particularity was that the debris was not randomly distributed within the field. The parts from the forward section of the plane were closer to the impact point than the engine fragments, which were near the far end of the debris field. The F-101 debris was similar - an impact crater (round this time) with the debris spread across the desert

This was different from what we expected at the ZEL F-100. Its debris would be concentrated in the immediate area of the crash, with only a minor amount thrown any distance. This made it hard to find; while the F-86H debris was thrown the distance of three football fields, we would have to come within a few feet of the F-100 debris to ever find it

It was Fall before we tried yet again. In the meantime, higher-quality copies were made from the video. This was done by Tom Tschida, who, like Merlin and Moore, worked at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. From the photos, Moore attempted to pinpoint the crash site. Comparing the overhead photo with a topographic map, he thought he found a spot. It was atthe end of one of the channels, where it flared out. Looking at the map location, I thought it was at about the point where I thought I recognized the terrain in the firemen shot. My recollection of the exact location was, shall we say, heat damaged.

And so, on October 4, we set out once more on the search that never seemed to end. This time, we brought reinforcements. The search party was composed of Merlin, Moore, myself, Tschida, and J. Lynn Lunsford, a staff writer with the Dallas Morning News. Whatever happened, the press would be there to record it. Failure was not an option. We drove out to the general area in Merlin's white Jeep and what Lunsford called a rattletrap red Ford pickup. We parked the vehicles, and got out and walked. We headed south towards the lakebed, then turned east, forming a skirmish line. The desert has its own particular beauty, with its endless skies and distant horizons. It was just that this particular part of the desert was getting a little too familiar.

As I said, the area we were searching was very isolated. However, even here the hand of man was apparent. Over the course of the next four hours, we found a Winnie-the-Pooh balloon, three instrument packages from crashed weather balloons (yes, weather balloons are real), a tow target dating from World War II, and numerous .50 caliber machine gun shell casings. We also ran across one of the local inhabitants. It was a rattlesnake about eight inches long, tan with brown stripes, and a really bad temper. We photographed the rattlesnake as it hid under a bush, but paid it more respect that the typical Paparazzi would. After all, how many movie stars have a poison bite?

In the course of our wanderings, we had covered the channels where we had thought the crash was located. This included the area where I had thought it was located during the previous attempt. Again, there was nothing. For the first time we crossed the fence line. All three earlier searches had been west of the fence. We continued east, then turned south towards the lakebed, then back west. I think it was Lunsford who observed that the last time anyone had been looking for the crash site they were guided by a plume of black smoke that rose into the desert sky. We had no such help.

At one point, Moore said, "When I get the hills lined up, the lakebed is in the wrong place." He continued "And that fireman is standing on a slight rise where the dirt is gray, but there aren't any rises like that." Finally, Moore realized we had been misreading the photos. We had always assumed the firemen shot was taken looking nearly due south. With the hills to the east correctly lined up, it was apparent the firemen shot was not looking to the south, but rather almost due west, towards the present location of the solar power station. We had been thinking that the intersection of the two lines of sight would form an X. Instead, the crash site was somewhere along a line running east to west.

During this period, there was a seemingly minor mishap. Lunsford was carrying a camera, and he discovered that its battery had fallen out. He set off to look for it. At the same time, Moore and I started walking west, using the fireman photo to determine our path. We continued until we reached the fence. Meanwhile, Merlin and Tschida had gone back to the vehicles to drive them to our location. (They were so far away that we could no longer see them.)

We were leaning on the fence, looking west. There was a rise past the fence that, to me, looked promising. This was in the same area where I had thought the crash site was on the third attempt. Lunsford was to the south and east of us.

It was now about 1:30 p.m. and we had four hours before it would begin to get dark. The day was warm, but not hot, and there was still plenty of time. Yet, for all the Saturdays and Sundays we had spent out here, all the many miles we had walked, we had not found a single indication we were anywhere close to the ZEL F-00 crash site. The debris field was small, and it was a very big desert. Moore and I were looking towards Lunsford, a small figure in that very big desert. Moore said, "Wouldn't it be funny if he found it?" It was a minute or two later, as I recall, that Lunsford began waving his arms, and yelling that he had found a piece of metal

Closing in on the ZEL

We ran over to Lunsford to see what he had found. The fragment was the size and shape of a thumbnail. The front side was shiny aluminum, while the curved back still showed traces of green primer paint. This was the type of paint used in 1950s aircraft interiors. We were on the ZEL's trail. Lunsford had marked the point where he had found the fragment with a large X. The three of us began a circular search pattern. After a few minutes, I found a second piece of metal. It was larger, with smears of gray paint. I later found out that gray paint was used in the cockpit. I thought it might have washed down from farther north, and I searched an area close to a rise. There was nothing there, so I rejoined Moore and Lunsford.

We started walking west; I followed Moore, while Lunsford was more towards the lakebed. Our pace was fairly slow, as we looked for any additional fragments. It was now about 2:20 p.m. Finally, Moore found another one. We knew we were close, and we started to walk faster. I began to see a few small metal fragments scattered on the ground.

And there it was.

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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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